Finding Beauty in Urban Decay: Eric Holubow at the Chicago Cultural Center
Growing up in central Illinois, my playmates and I spent our summer evenings in the new houses under construction at the fringes of our neighborhood. Our parents forbade it, fearing loose nails and unfinished staircases, but we loved to trespass in these naked urban gardens, in skeletons of houses with hard wire veins and wooden bones. For us, they were uncharted territories, new spaces in limbo meant to be hidden or overlooked. However, as the northeast corner of town where I lived was undergoing rapid expansion, other areas of the city fell into disrepair. Years later, seeking high school thrills in a nervous first foray into urban exploration, I would creep into an abandoned orphanage with friends, holding a flashlight in one hand and mace in the other. Meanwhile, in nearby large urban centers such as Chicago, abandoned churches and hollowed out factories had long become an invisible part of the city landscape.
Photographer Eric Holubow, a Chicago native, documents the grand urban decay that progresses unseen in the heart of America’s cities. His sweeping wide-angle shots of disused buildings capture the sense of time and age that we so easily disregard in our world of unbridled growth and progress.
In an exhibit entitled In Decay: Stitching America’s Ruins (running through July 8th, 2012), the Chicago Cultural Center showcases Holubow’s work of the past several years, photographing sites of abandonment in cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and Buffalo, NY. Upon entering the exhibit, the photos are immediately captivating in their beauty and scale. “Upstaging Uptown” shows the former glory of Chicago’s Uptown Theatre, an enormous historic movie palace covering 46,000 square feet which opened in 1925, staged elaborate productions over the subsequent half-century, and then was closed and abandoned in 1981 following frozen water pipe damage. The radiant colors of the ceiling and a gleaming spotlight-like diffraction effect in the photograph lend the empty room a still-living feel, as if the show must go on even without an audience — or rehabilitation funds. Another photo, “Room with a View,” gives off a very different effect of finding peace and tranquility amongst the rubble in the moss-overgrown Packard auto plant in Detroit. The quiet scene almost invites the viewer to sit for a moment, facing an expanse of blue sky through a missing window, and reflect on fortunes made and lost.
What is particularly exceptional about Holubow’s photographs however, is the vibrancy of his images of decay. Objects and surfaces we expect to be grimy, dank, and dark are just that — and yet his technique of stitching multiple exposures has clarified detail and given a color-saturated look to the dilapidated interiors. The ultra-wide angles display these enormous spaces in their overwhelming entirety — sometimes the ceiling, floor, and three walls all at once. The result is views of decaying interiors that are striking in their beauty and romance; splendid, shining urban landscapes that are wholly present and real.
Lanny Silverman, thechief curator of exhibitions, says of Holubow’s photographs, “What impresses me is their sheer beauty conjoined with surrealistic [imagery], despite the fact that these environments are ‘real.’ His work does have a very painterly feel, but only some minor overlays of multiple exposures contribute to the constructed quality of these remarkable places. The ‘stuff’ is all as is!”
While Holubow’s photographic eye is evidently well practiced, his eye for urban ruins came first. “My fascination with exploring buildings grew distinct from my photographic interests,” he says. “As a youth growing up in Chicago, I had great access to [many] derelict sites that I would occasionally investigate.”
Holubow builds on a long tradition of artistic reflection on the beauty of decay. Aesthetic thought has held a strong fascination with ruins since the 18th century. Poets, artists, and philosophers looked upon ruins as gentle reminders of our own mortality and the inevitable decline of human glory — not only in death, but in memory. In 1817, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Oyzmandias” lamented the hubris of material tributes to man’s ultimately fleeting power. Romantics also found in ruins a profound beauty rooted in a sense of the sublime, a testament to the infinite power of time and natural forces beyond human control or understanding. The English poet William Wordsworth in 1798 ruminated over the ruins of Tintern Abbey, finding in its desuetude then, and the nostalgia of his memory, a way to appreciate the sublimity of nature.
By the 20th century, ruins had come into a different context. Urbanization and industrialization has refocused our gaze from classical architecture to neglected city neighborhoods, where once-thriving schools, hospitals, churches, or factories have been deserted because of social and economic conditions. Our current urban landscape is dominated by technology, industrial production, and increasingly globalized, swiftly changing commercial systems. In this environment, wealth is shifted rapidly from one locale to another and the development or abandonment of city buildings moves to match.
Today these empty structures are treated with neglect, disinterest, or — at best — nostalgia.Our contemporary ruins are left unseen and forgotten by the public, but a careful eye from photographers such as Holubow reveals untold stories.
“Often people associate ruins with cities from the Old World, such as Greece and Italy,” Holubow notes. “But many would be surprised to consider that even our relatively young nation has ruins of its own. And the architectural style and building types of America’s ruins also differ significantly by region, with for instance a greater prevalence of asylums and hospitals clustering to the East Coast, and many automotive factories and steel plants in the Rust Belt.”
Chicago in particular seems to be a home for many urban-exploration artists. Fellow urban decay photographer Jonathon Much says, “Chicago is an epicenter for the urban explorer. It has influenced me for a multitude of reasons. Primarily, Chicago developed as such an industrial city, and was so significant to the evolution of the United States. It was built and rooted in industries and hard work, and the architecture is amongst the greatest in this country.”
“[In] the early 20th century much of the Southside of Chicago boomed with new businesses and homes, and now it does not maintain the same reputation it once had. Changes like that not only create culture, but also allow me to shoot sites that are rich in history and significance for their communities,” he adds.
In contemporary urban America our fascination with ruins and decay is as strong as ever. Urban exploration (or urbex) has become serious pastime for legions of photographers and adventurers. There are Web sites, blogs, and forums for urbex in major cities, groups on meetup.com, and advice on Yelp. An internet photo magazine called Explonation collects work from urbex photographers around the globe. Holubow, of course, recognizes that he’s part of a sort of underground community.
“I’ve also been surprised by how many other photographers I’ve met while exploring – some who even traveled nearly a thousand miles and ran into me at an abandoned building on Chicago’s west side,” he says.
It’s no surprise, then, that urbex seems to have a secretive air to it. “The world of Urbex photography has a certain speakeasy undertone,” Much says. “Information is only shared amongst trusted sources, and there is a lot of reconnaissance that goes into the sites we are going to shoot.”
Exploring these spaces certainly comes with a great deal of risk, including arrest for trespassing, unsound surfaces, and toxic inhalations from asbestos or even accumulated pigeon droppings. Surely, also, this is some of the appeal, a necessary part of the journey to find a sort of alternative city, one that is mysterious and seemingly impenetrable. Among the dust and trash, risks can be rewarded with aesthetic treasures for the camera like abandoned tricycles, or soft steams of light from clouded windows.
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