Geography and Loss
At the end of the natural history and anthropological displays of the NY State Museum in Albany, a long, narrow, dark grey gallery offers a gem of an exhibition. With sharp, bright colored images interspersed with maps, artifacts and interpretive writings, Hudson Valley Ruins, the work of Robert J. Yasinsac and Thomas E. Rinaldi, is one of those rare shows that feeds the mind, the imagination and the restless soul.
In the old restored former mill building where I live in the Berkshires, huge beams, vast expanses of windows, and engraved floors where machines and workers gouged out lines of production during the nineteenth-century predominate. Entering Hudson Valley Ruins, I immediately recognized the architecture of use, ruin, repair and disappearance, lingering over photographs and remnants of both elegant and practical architecture, some gone forever.
Linked to the study of industrial heritage, “industrial and architectural archeology” involves the identification, cataloging, study and even preservation of buildings of the recent past. The two photographers in the show, Yasinsac and Rinaldi, independently became interested as teenagers in wrecks of old buildings near where they grew up in Tarrytown and Poughkeepsie, NY, in the '80s and '90s. Rinaldi went to school on the grounds of the old Bennett School for Girls and remembers seeing ruins of the school in the background. He keenly observed old brickwork and later responded as an artist to how structure, with age, becomes mere texture; the lines of a bent metal window, for example, no longer functional, become pattern. As a high school photography student, Yasinsac also explored ruins of grand estates and environs around Tarrytown on the Hudson. The current exhibit, Hudson Valley Ruins, developed over twenty years, represents their combined efforts investigating abandoned buildings between Yonkers and the Capital District. Together and on their own, they photographed abandoned architecture: their shared passion—reconstructing history and development along the Hudson River and saving it through photography.
With the advent of the Dutch in 1609, the Hudson River played an early crucial role in the development of what became the United States. Initially it was a river highway to Albany and points north, where trapping and settlement were crucial aspects of the early region. In the nineteenth-century, the area around the river became a tourist haven a destination for artists and writers; and a center for industry, called by some “the cradle of American industrialization.” 1 By the twentieth century, the expansion of the West, the diminishment of old fortunes and their wealthy estates, fading tourism, an increase in other forms of transportation that eclipsed the river, and (most importantly) the closing of factories decreased the utility of many of the buildings that had flourished there. Ice harvesting and brickyards were some of the industries no longer viable: those materials and functions were replaced by such innovations as refrigeration. Concrete and steel production, replacing bricks, sprang up elsewhere. Other small factories simply lost out to bigger, more efficient businesses.2 Many old buildings were torn down or fell down. By the last half of the twentieth-century, “ruins represented job loss, economic stagnation, and poverty…” 3
The show begins with a niche of artifacts and rescued furniture from various buildings, giving a sense of the style of the time: an ornate red printed satin couch; a fragment of a column. Bricks with impressed brand names cover a wall. The bricks are not flat but have indentations and a range of colors. Further on in the exhibit, a corbel from a building appears high up on the exhibition wall, and on a dark note, a heavy grilled metal door, once part of Sing Sing Prison (from the name of a local tribe, Sinck Sinck), painted silver, bookends the show. These workday objects set the stage for the polarity of ninteenth-century factory vs. wealthy parlor working world and world of leisure—the buildings of both of these worlds have failed to survive intact into the present in the Hudson Valley. There are exceptions—buildings that have been reclaimed and renovated into schools and functioning businesses. Restoration and transformation have occurred for a few, such as the successful evolution of an abandoned box-printing company into the museum Dia: Beacon in 2003. Tourism has returned. And there is a growing call for recognition of the value of these symbols of Hudson Valley culture and for further restoration. Some of the buildings photographed are now demolished. Sites have become obscured by growth and are literally falling down.
The photographs themselves have a vibrant color, warmth and clarity. Northeastern weather and bright skies are used to advantage to create light stages for the architecture, capturing crisp daylight and chill winter blue skies. There are only three black and white photographs, and these are some of the most evocative, typically capturing a widely nuanced range of greys suggesting neglect and obscurity, their locations as important as the building themselves as nature and architecture merge with each other.
Traveling that curious line between documentary and fine art photography, some of the photographs are more like documents, and some more like art works. Using photographic expression of extraordinary space and light, focusing on curves and pattern, play of light and dark, texture of façade and decay; reflecting an ambiance of neglect and withdrawal, some of the images function as both. In “Oliver Bronson House, Hudson,” Rinaldi frames the upstairs landing of an abandoned house through the inner spiral of a staircase as it emerges from the first floor, curving upstairs. An open green door on the right floods the foreground with light and sends the back curve of the rising stairs into shadow. The stairs and door seem like a living force that pulses centrally through the building. At the far end, an illuminated orange door pierced by a bright window draws the eye back into space; the delicate tracery of the arched window over the door and the upper spokes of the banister are like the inner filigree of a shell. Notes of burgundy and pale blue flicker on the left wall of the landing, while the center of the space is bathed in a warm and even mysterious light.
The distant antecedent to these photographs is the Romantic movement in Europe that painted ruins to heighten emotion and the sense of the passage of history. Hudson River School artists were influenced by the Romantic movement and sought to depict similar landscapes and architecture. Even in the twentieth-century, photographers and artists fell in love with sections of industrial architecture and discarded mechanical material, creating a genre of reuse and decay. Charles Sheeler took photographs of factories as sources for paintings and drawings, glorying in sharp lines and contrasting tones of concrete, metal and brick. He framed his work abstractly even as he paid close attention to detail and mood. Irving Penn made luscious studies of the most abject discarded objects, from city signs, to crushed cigarette butts, to pieces of trash. The painter Walter Murch painted parts of abandoned mechanical objects as still life, creating an atmosphere of mystery, with these fragments presented almost as objects of worship. Rinaldi's "Staples Brick Company" presents rusted forms from the abandoned factory in a similar way to Murch's paintings, turning them into sculpture, nestled in an overgrown lot.
In “Briarcliff Lodge,” Yasinsac’s subject is light, where beams crisscross a pale cream interior of a large hall. The building is an inverse lantern, where open doorways and windows focus light in rays, as if illuminating a stage. In “Alsen’s American Portland Cement Works, Smith’s Landing,” Rinaldi splices the verticle space of the vertical photograph with a huge shadow falling across the central third of the photograph, isolating part of the building and train tracks running astride it. The shape of the roof reveals a design that would be symmetrical except for this huge, stark diagonal cutting across it. Lines and windows like Mondrian shapes chop up the space, a symphony in creams, grays and rust of tough materials. The effect is daring and confrontive.
In “West Shore Railroad Station,” Rinaldi strikes a balance between information and art, creating horizontal strips of color: snow in shadow, blacktop, dry frozen grass, low brick building, blue violet mountains grazed with snow; against a bright blue sky with streaked white clouds. As frontal as a Hopper painting of a city street, the photograph contrasts the elegance of the old station, with its round-arched windows and pediment, against the worn triangles of the Catskills, in a man-made vs. natural frieze. As a document, he also gives the sense of what it was like to be at that station.
All of these images are bold, affirming the importance of the edifices with their once classic design, delicacy and strength—or they rest in a kind of gentle nostalgia where the effects of decay, “demolition by neglect”4 is extreme; nature’s vast growth nearly obscures and threatens to take over the sense of place that once lingered there. In “Yonkers Power Station,” Yasinsac offers immensely tall smokestacks rising high into the sky, their orange color reflected in the sharp blue water below, splintered by reflections. Only five miles above New York City, the factory is an imposing brick presence built to provide electricity to Grand Central Station. Closed in 1963, it is almost a symbol of the industrial age’s rise and decline, waiting to be renewed, re-used or torn down, a kind of icon of power. Yasinsac’s point of view emphasizes the outsized persona of this building: it is seen from a distance and below, so the towering height of the stacks are exaggerated. In “Wyndclyffe,” Yasinsac also angles the photograph from below, emphasizing the mansion's grandeur and larger-than-life presence, while tree branches cast eerie shadows that half obscure the brick walls.
In “F. Sheffdecker House, Bethelhem,” Rinaldi presents two trees in late Fall spreading their branches so vastly across the picture plane that only secondarily does the house in the far left of the field appear, as a kind of ghost image. Nature is about to paint over this structure, now the same color of the grass and trees, its windows dark holes, half in shadow. The whole photo consists of scrawling lines and the dark and light texture of the branches’ scumble. The only clear color is the cerulean sky behind house and trees at the horizon, blending to cobalt and then blue-violet. Orange scratches of tree limbs fill the frame; furious strokes in an abstract-expressionist take on decay.
In “Greycourt” Yasinsac invites us to look down a hallway towards a lit red door against a half painted blue green wall. The hallway, darkened except for another door slightly opened, half way down, creates a bright line of red and turquoise again, rough with peeling paint. Rolls and sheafs of shaggy wall crust off the walks in yellow, blue and cream, revealing other colors underneath. A study of the shocking beauty of imperfection, a modern installation artist could not create an environment as rich, textured and visually demanding as this. The long one-point perspective of the photo just increases the sense of being tossed into an incomprehensible world where a giant has torn books of colored paper and pasted them to the walls. The scene truly appears as another reality.
The combination of history, thrilling abandonment to nature, stark beauty and design in the photographs of Hudson Valley Ruins grabs one’s heart and stirs the vision. Clearly, Yasinsac and Rinaldi are enthralled with these monuments to the past. By dredging them and putting them out for the viewer to see, they both reconstruct our understanding of past Hudson River societal and industrial life and fire our imaginations, that feed on such raw remnants of once inhabited places.
The show, on view from Aug 20, 2016—Dec. 31, 2017, was inspired by the book, Hudson Valley Ruins: forgotten landmarks of an American landscape.
Robert J. Yasinsac and Thomas E. Rinaldi, © 2006 by University Press of New England
Thomas E. Rinadi and Robert J. Yasinsac, Hudson Valley Ruins: forgotten landmarks of an American landscape (Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 2006), 11.
Hudson Valley Ruins, NY State Museum, wall text.