The Photo: What a Beautiful World
Monday's Child Is Fair of Face
I’m not alone in finding built landscapes fascinating visually—and I am far more compelled by constructed objects and buildings that haven’t been made with aesthetic purpose in mind.
We’re so deeply conditioned to find industrial facilities ugly, with some reason. Many of them damage our environment and blight the health of people in vulnerable communities nearby. They’re forbidding and forbidden places, surrounded by fences and security gates, with interiors that most of us never see and processes that are hidden from scrutiny. There’s often no way to frame an interesting picture of what you’d like to picture or compose—a wall or a fence or a guardpost intercedes, a maze of streets and abandoned buildings stands between you and the last place you can park in. Human beings are inside, but no one wants human beings to approach.
But they’re also visually interesting: they smoke, they blaze, they move and grind. They have hundreds of shapes, all tied to particular processes of making, expelling, refining, cooling, heating, transporting, almost none of them designed to be appreciated by human eyes.
I have had my eyes for years on the refinery at Yankee Point in Philadelphia, shot from the approach to the George Platt Bridge on the northeast side, where there’s a blocked-off path with a police warning on it. When we first moved to this area, the pathway was still open, but I wasn’t into photography then. I keep meaning to see if the city will allow people with some kind of permit to shoot images from the walkway—it would make a spectacular image of the Philadelphia skyline under the right light and weather conditions. I suspect not, for all sorts of reasons. There’s a subcommunity of photographers who focus on industrial sites and they often have to deal with hostility from civil authorities and private security who assume malign intent of some kind—because who could find such places visually interesting? It says something when even the people who own industrial facilities generally accept that what they’ve built is ugly, and moreover, this is where capitalism’s hijacking of privacy as a concept becomes materially real rather than an abstract legalism, where productive spaces are held to be something to look past, around, away from.