Holubow is less interested in exploration for excitement than in artistic purpose, however. Photographing ruins is a way to tell a larger story, beyond the immediate aesthetic experience or thrill of discovery. “Generally, I am drawn to buildings with great historical and cultural significance,” Holubow says. “When possible, I prefer to know as much about a building’s history prior to exploring it . . . Though a photograph alone can say a lot, it can be given greater depth of meaning through the support of broader narrative that is the building’s history.”

Holubow’s images do leave one with the impression of just touching on unfinished stories. His photograph of Agudas Achim, an ostentatious and boldly colored synagogue, invites one to wonder what happened to the Jewish congregations, choirs, and rabbis whose voices had filled this once-lively space. In “Nurse’s Kitchen” at a Chicago hospital, the scene feels so recently abandoned: a single undamaged swivel chair is left in the middle of an otherwise emptied and raided room, the cabinet doors askew and drawers open as if the occupants had just run out. Where did everyone go? In Much’s “Refrigeration Generator Wheel” the enormous rusted wheel sits immobile in rubble, provoking reflection on the factory hands that operated this machinery during their long workweeks, and what it was like. There seems much more to tell about the human presence in these environments. As Much says, “Behind the decay lie the lives and histories of hundreds of men and women.”

The world of urbex is full of aspiring adventurers and voyeurs, but there are many others who use photography to make social commentary. Chicagoan Richard Nickel came to an untimely end while protesting and documenting the demolition of architect Louis Sullivan’s buildings in the 1960s and 1970s. Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre have produced wonderful work on late 20th century Detroit to examine the decline of the motor city in post-industrial America. Manufactured landscapes and the “industrial sublime” are the theme of Edward Burtynsky’s magnificent large-format photographs documenting the grand scale of our global economy. All of these artists have contributed, and some continue to do so, in bringing awareness to the changes that continue to unfold before our eyes on a daily basis; significant degenerations that are slowly altering the nation as we once knew it.

Holubow is influenced by many renowned photographers of urban decay, including Stephen Wilkes, Christopher Payne, and Shaun O’Boyle, in addition to lesser-known photographers he’s met in Chicago such as John Crouch, Xavier Nuez, and David Schalliol. He cites a great admiration for Lee Bay, an architectural photographer and chronicler of endangered historical landmarks and buildings, also a columnist for WBEZ and Vocalo in Chicago.

Inspiration, however, can be found in diverse sources. Much names street artists Banksy and Shephard Fairy as well as jazz music among his influences, “I find the chaos in industrial urban decay to be quite similar to fusion jazz. Artists like Miles Davis or John McLaughlin particularly because on the surface fusion jazz seems chaotic and disorganized, but with the patience to understand it, you can see how complex and beautiful it truly is. I try to keep that in mind when taking photos; that sometimes the most abstract subjects can really be cohesive if captured in a way that creates understanding.”

Art is precisely a way to allow understanding and harmony to emerge from the industrial chaos of the contemporary landscape. The plight of former industrial powerhouse cities laid to waste, such as rapidly-shrinking Detroit (whose population has fallen 25 percent in the last decade according to 2010 census data), makes for foreboding headlines. It is tempting to look upon derelict buildings as strictly a symptom of social ills, and it is true that photos at these sites of desertion are the most compelling evidence of the physical effects of failed economies.

Thus the theme of urban decay may feel particularly relevant at this point in American history. Lanny Silverman says, “There is a very timely sense of content, as the U.S.’s infrastructure has been decaying and our economic plight has affected our housing and led to many abandoned buildings. The sense of isolation, loss, and decay captured in these settings could be said to mirror a mood that pervades our culture. Seeing the poetry and beauty of decay may just help us to realize something positive about change and loss.”

Holubow sees certain positivity in the interest that photographs of urban decay has incited in others, believing that the current crisis and the perceived “decline of the American empire” have affected how people view ruins in their cities. Public awareness is developing more and more around the need for thoughtful repurposing of existing resources and sustainable development. “After the era of Post-War prosperity and consumerism,” he says, “Americans have sharply and continually been moving reactively toward a culture of sustainability and preservation for which this work [on urban decay] can be an indication.”

For his part, Much has not yet seen much evidence of a growing “culture of sustainability” in the course of his urban explorations. He has observed a remarkable propensity toward waste, demonstrated by often workable objects and tools abandoned along with buildings. “Often, when I walk into an abandonment, the first thing that comes to mind is, ‘How could this be repurposed?’” Much says.

On a recent trip to Jamaica, he was struck by the stark difference of U.S. treatment of abandoned sites. “While in developing countries every scrap of reusable material is collected, in the U.S. abandoned sites have more than just historic value,” he continues. “I can’t even begin to explain how sad it is to see certain items go to waste. I see a lot of pianos left behind and often think of schools and less privileged individuals who would gladly repair them for use.”

This wasteful treatment comes to mind when viewing Holubow’s “Uptown Entrance,” another photograph of Chicago’s Uptown Theater, which shows a magnificent entrance hallway looking to be in excellent condition except for paint peeling from the ceiling and discolored drapes. It seems a terrible shame to let this gorgeous space go untended and unused.

Holubow’s work in this field of diverse and far-reaching implications remains positive, drawing out the beauty in urban ruins rather than lingering on socio-economic failures. He elevates abandoned and forgotten places from the mundane by creating a spectacular visual representation. Even as he tells the stories of seemingly empty buildings he is more interested what humanity there still is, creating images where there is a “presence of life,” as he says, “For me my work serves as a proscenium in which I imagine the past cultures of people living, working, and praying in these places.”

Similarly, Much says his images of “once-living interiors” reveal not emptiness and desertion, but spaces still full of memory and meaning, “I’m merely there to see that it doesn’t just get swept away amongst all the ruins of time. There is beauty in the decay, but there are also memories, moments in time, it’s all still there. I’ve had people look at my work and say ‘I used to go to school there’ or ‘I remember that place’ and for a moment they’re there again.”

For all the complex politics surrounding urban decay, there is a magnificence and inherent beauty present that is boarded up, hidden, or ignored. In photographs, this beauty is not forgotten, no longer silent and unseen.

To the public, Holubow hopes to communicate one thing through his images: “Simply that this type of hidden beauty is all around us — and is quickly vanishing.”

“In Decay: Stitching America’s Ruins” runs through July 8, 2012 at the Chicago Cultural Center. Eric Holubow will also be exhibiting and selling his work at two upcoming Chicago art fairs: The 57th Street Art Fair (Hyde Park neighborhood) at booth #516, from June 2 to 3; and The Old Town Art Fair at booth #188, from June 9 to 10.

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