The Lansdowne Theater

When I started photographing these abandoned places I was most interested in the dark side: the ugly underbelly of society turned beautiful by the camera’s eye. I photographed Pennhurst – an abandoned children’s asylum – with great excitement. The idea of exploring a place where so much life had gone wrong filled me with a strange power, perhaps akin to that idea of wrestling with our own demons. But afterwards I was reluctant to share the photographs. The empty, sheeted bed with the peeling walls behind it was so incredibly sad – and the bed itself a kind of relief map of those who had used it. I was almost embarrassed by bearing witness to the stark devastation of this place; not just the walls but the human spirits that seemed to haunt Pennhurst.

Photographing this theater is at the opposite side of that experience spectrum. The paint is faded, yes – the artifacts sit in silent storage. But they remind us of an era of opulence. The portrait of the projectionist hangs on the wall above his private sink in the projector room, celebrating and honoring his life. The machinery of the then state-of-the-art projectors is cheery with its red and yellow lettering, the bakelite knobs. And the theater is owned by a non profit organization that is actively restoring it as a music venue – hope abounds.

I don’t know if the experiences of photographing these two places and my responses to them are a map of my own psyche or not, but I’ve learned a lot about what moves me as an artist, and I’m looking forward to exploring that more.

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Pennhurst Round 2

I took another trip to the Pennhurst School – a residential facility for children with disabilities that closed in 1987. The media had reported repeated instances of abuse and neglect, and the school did not keep up with advances in the treatment of mental disorders and differences. Most of the buildings and grounds of this immense facility are off limits. Here are a few images captured in the two buildings that are still open on occasion:

. For more information you may visit this site: http://pennhurstproject.com/

The Flight 93 Memorial: Stoneycreek Township, PA

I traveled out to western Pennsylvania for a workshop and found the Flight 93 Memorial on the way. I decided to stop and take a look. I had experienced the the devastation of the Trade Center towers up close, and the experience of reliving the events of 9/11 through the eyes of those who witnessed the path of flight 93 offered a new and sobering perspective.

It’s a long and winding road up to the site of the crash. I was immediately impressed by the landscape; the area looks different from everything around it, as if it was designed for a specific purpose apart from the farms and small towns surrounding it.

 

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The topography was reminiscent of Montana – not how one envisions Pennsylvania.

As you drive in toward the site, you are greeted by rows of trees planted in honor of those who perished on flight 93:

 

trees_72Next, the parking lot, flanked by a series of placards with historical information and describing the layout of the memorial and the plans for the 2200 acre site:

 

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since911board_72The memorial is a simple but powerful design, and it involves a journey. You can begin at the assembly area where docents tell the story of flight 93. I arrived too late for the lecture, which was fine with me.

 

Theater_72Visitors walk along a long, low, black granite wall that was designed to follow the path that the plane took once it hit the top of the hill. The plane had taken off from Newark, bound for San Francisco after a 30 minute delay. Because of this delay, some of the passengers learned of the attacks on the Twin Towers by cell phone around the same time the hijackers stormed the cockpit. They surmised that flight 93 was meant to be part of the attack, and realized the flight had taken an abrupt turn off course, toward Washington, DC. They rallied, forced their way into the cockpit themselves and brought the plane down to avoid reaching the terrorists’ target.

This is the path the flight took after turning upside down and hitting the field at 563 mph:

 

walkway_72Tourists like to photograph their loved ones at this site. Others leave offerings to the memories of the victims in niches along the way:

 

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If you look closely you can see a golden boulder out in the field beyond the wall. This marks the point where the plane came to rest, in pieces strewn all along the path.

 

boulder_72The wall ends at a series of marble panels about 8 feet high. Each is marked by the name of one of the 44 victims. Visitors leave flowers and artifacts here, too.

 

beamer_72Walking along the black wall, envisioning what happened that day, witnessing the sobriety of the other visitors, and their silences was a powerful experience.

There is a lot of construction going on at the site. A museum is going up at the top of the hill, at the point of impact, seconds after local residents spotted the plane flying upside-down. At the bottom of the hill they are building a walkway. I’m not sure where that leads, or what purpose it serves, but maybe I’ll return one day and find out.

 

future_72One of the more striking aspects of my visit was that the day was so similar to September 11, 2001. Clear, warm and beautiful – it brought back that day with startling clarity.