Modern Ruins

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Modern Ruins: Portraits of Place in the Mid-Atlantic Region by Shaun O’Boyle, introduction by Geoff Manaugh.

O'Boyle Manaugh Modern Ruins

Modern Ruins consists principally of four visual essays photographed by Shaun O’Boyle. The subjects throughout are buildings in Pennsylvania and New York that have been untenanted and untended for one or more human generations. 

The “Institutions” of the first essay are views of ruined mental hospitals and penitentiaries, which would seem to have a liberatory undertone, if it weren’t for the knowledge that these bygone institutions have been largely replaced with neglect on the one hand and more efficient facilities on the other. I was surprised at the amount of color among these photos.

The second essay “Steel” shows plants and foundries, mainly the Bethlehem Steel facility, a picture of which is also on the cover of the volume. I was struck by a certain organic quality to the images, as well as the sort of ecclesiastical spiring of the architecture. The Bethlehem Steel plant through O’Boyle’s lens looks to me like an H.R. Giger cathedral.

The “Coal” essay is as focused on the ruins of communities associated with the moribund Pennsylvania anthracite industry as it is on industrial structures themselves, but offers some images of the great “breakers” buildings that were used to process the coal. 

The final essay is “Arsenal,” treating Bannerman’s Island on the Hudson River. This site was the commercial and residential home of a premiere arms merchant in the early 20th century, and the architecture embraces a Scottish Gothic conceit, putting me in mind of Macbeth taking a summer holiday with his family. 

Each photo essay is prefaced by a text from a different contributor, offering historical backgrounds on the sites photographed. I read the volume in slavish obedience to the pagination, front to back; but especially after reading the interview with O’Boyle that concludes the book, I wonder if it wouldn’t be more effective to read the historical texts after viewing the photos, so that the images could provide the sort of lure of the unknown and sense of mystery that the photographer claims to prize in his own effort to capture them. 

The book also includes an overall introduction by Geoff Manaugh, which reflects on the entire photographic genre of ruined modern architecture, and the nature and sources of its allure for 21st-century viewers. The entire package is relatively compact, with only about 120 pages all told, of which fewer than twenty are text, but it deserves to be taken in at a slow pace over multiple sittings.