This time last year, I was engulfed by the Polar Vortex in Chicago, but this year I am in the Boston area for its record snowfall. The region has received nearly 8 feet (2.4 meters) of snow in the last few weeks, and additional precipitation is forecast. Unfortunately, the area’s public transportation infrastructure is woefully underprepared for the deluge, and many municipalities don’t know where to put all of the snow; Boston has even considered dumping it in the harbor. Even so, the accumulation makes for a fresh landscape and is especially peaceful on Cambridge’s side streets at night.
Even more than 2013, I spent 2014 working on projects, including the films Almost There and The Area, and photography series about subsidized housing in New York City and Japan’s Tōhoku region. When not working on those projects, I continued to travel through the United States, often to work on my ongoing collaboration with Michael Carriere at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Below, I have included sample photographs from those projects, alongside supplementary images I made in many of the cities I visited throughout the year. As always, you can click through most of the photographs to view them on flickr, alongside many other everyday images.
In 2013, I produced a body of work as Environmental Cinematographer for the ITVS/Kartemquin Films project Almost There. After a year of post-production work, the film made its world premiere at DOCNYC in November. It has since screened at ArcLight Hollywood, and its Chicago premiere will be on January 10, 2015 at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Watch for it on PBS later this year.
I continue to busily work on The Area, alongside editors Brian Ashby and Peter Galassi from Scrappers Film Group. Thanks to the support from the Graham Foundation, the Driehaus Foundation, and the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, we produced more than three hours of edited footage last summer and are preparing for another round of editing early in 2015. Still, I am not done with the project and expect to be filming into 2015. If you are interested in reading about the project, I continue to write a column addressing some of the pertinent issues for BAG News. My next piece will be published in the next few weeks, although you can always check in at the film’s website for updates.
The Subsidized Housing of New York City, New York
This fall I worked on a documentary photography project about subsidized housing in New York that included everything from historic cooperative developments to the public housing projects of the New York City Housing Authority. I will provide more details about that series when it is published as part of a book project next year. In the meantime, I’ve included two images below.
At the beginning of 2014 I flew to Japan for an exhibition of the Isolated Building Studies at Gallery Tanto Tempo, which led to the publication of Isolated Building Studies by UTAKATADO Publishing. Following my time in Kobe, I visited other cities before heading into Tōhoku, the Japanese region critically affected by the March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear disaster. Several photographs from the visit are below, and I wrote a lengthy summary of the experience last January.
OTHER UNITED STATES CITIES
Bay Area, California
Buffalo, New York
In 2013, I created a small project about Buffalo’s telescope houses, and I continued to work on the project in 2014. The following set of night photographs is a sample of the material I made to extend the earlier work.
While I have been mainly using my time in Cambridge to write, I have been working on a small project about the neighborhood of Cambridgeport.
In addition to working on The Area and a set of photographs from this year’s polar vortex, I continue to work on a broad body of work about Chicago, from general views of daily urban life to documenting specific events like the Luftwerk/Mas Context installation at Marina City.
I am working on a typology of post-war residential buildings in the Cleveland area.
Although I have slowed working on my seven-year project about the Detroit, Michigan area, I still made a few trips to the city.
Los Angeles, California
New York City, New York
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and its River Towns
I was happy to have enough time in the Pittsburgh area to produce a small project along the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers.
Providence, Rhode Island
St. Louis, Missouri
I was only in St. Louis for a couple of days, but I was excited to be able to snap this aerial image of Granite City, Illinois.
I recently visited Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to present at the International Visual Sociology Association‘s annual meeting and explore the region. I particularly enjoy working in Pittsburgh, but my time photographing the end of an era in Johnstown instilled an interest in the region’s smaller towns. When I visited Pittsburgh in 2011, I made sure to spend a little time in neighboring borough of Braddock, but I wanted to go farther afield this time. In part motivated to see the borough of Donora, whose 1948 environmental catastrophe raised awareness of the need for clean air regulations, I visited more than a dozen towns in the Monongahela River valley, and then several more along the Ohio River.
Wedged between the rivers and the hills, the towns are similarly caught between the remaining industrial operations and the otherwise increasingly derelict industrial landscape. For every resident who boasted to me about her town’s architecture or community, another would offer warnings about the “bad” part of town or lament the moribund central business district. Braddock continues to capture headlines for its attempts at creative revitalization, but it is easy to see how many residents interpret continuing depopulation and unemployment as foretelling a more desperate future.
There are reasons for some optimism. Pittsburgh is undergoing a renaissance, a few towns are successfully capitalizing on their historic character, and the rivers offer an undeniable beauty. Still, as even the power plants wind down their operations, it’s easy to see how so many are dispirited about the future of the outlying towns.
The following images are selections from my excursions along with a few Pittsburgh images. As always, you can view more photographs on flickr.
The most challenging portion of my trip to Japan was the time in Tōhoku’s recovering disaster areas, but I spent the majority of my visit in urban Japan. The first half of my trip was structured around Kobe, where I was exhibiting my Isolated Building Studies, and Tokyo served as the base for the second half of the excursion. Whether in Kobe, Tokyo or Sendai, I was excited to have the opportunity to experience Japan’s distinctive urban character alongside some of the most idealistic examples of mid-century architecture — and some of the boldest contemporary styles. The following photographs feature the most typical and atypical locations.
Representative buildings in the Yaesu and Akihabara districts of Tokyo
Aoyama Kitamachi Danchi, a social housing development on the edge of Tokyo’s Omotesando commercial district
[Special thanks go to Luis Mendo, who walked me through this district.]
I am excited to announce that the Japanese photography book producer Utakatado has just published Isolated Building Studies, the first book dedicated to my Isolated Building Studies project. The 56-page softcover book is 7.5″ x 11.5″ and features 36 of my favorite photographs from the series, including the images in the below thumbnails. Additional images of the book from the publisher are below the thumbnails.
The book is already available in Asia, but it will be a couple of weeks before it is available in the U.S. without shipping directly from Japan. In the meantime, if you are outside of Asia and would like a copy, you can purchase the book from me using the PayPal link below. The book is $19 (tax included), plus $4 for shipping within the U.S. (contact me for pricing for other destinations). I should be able to get the books in the mail one workday after an order is placed, with the first orders going out on Friday.
UPDATE: Isolated Building Studies has been featured by a variety of publications including Dwell, Chicago magazine and Gizmodo. It is now also stocked by Chicago bookstores Quimby’s and 57th Street Books.
Last week I traveled with Japanese advertising director and photographer Yohei Morita through Tōhoku, the Japanese region critically affected by the March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear disaster.
Tōhoku is wedged between the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean on the northern portion of the country’s largest island, Honshu. Compared to southern Honshu and its major cities, the region is rural and less habitable, even along the coastlines. The island’s volcanic and tectonic history are clear there, where the coastal hills make way for the Ōu Mountains and its national parks, hot springs and temples, including the famous Yama-dera temple complex that dates back to the ninth century.
The landscape that makes the coastal regions of Tōhoku so lovely amplified the disaster. While most of the region escaped unscathed, along the eastern section of the coast, the mountains and hills make way for the dozens of small bays and river valleys that became the locations of small towns. For hundreds of years, residents of these towns lived side-by-side with their rice paddies and fishing fleet harbors, and the hills above were the locations of shrines and timber harvesting. When the tsunami struck, it rose as high as 130 feet, immediately overwhelming many eastern coastal harbors and surging up the rivers, which jumped their banks and flood-walls. Whole towns were nearly destroyed. The Japanese government estimates that more than 18,000 people lost their lives, and another 340,000 were displaced.
Building on its Side, Onagawa
Towns and business that were farther inland quickly became safe harbors for the residents who survived. Among others is Oiwake Onsen, a traditional spring inn near the nearly submerged town of Onagawa, which became the home for two dozen elderly town residents. They lived in the inn for nearly six months while the cleanup and rebuilding occurred.
Nearly three years since the disaster, many of these towns have been cleared of most debris and now resemble fallow fields. Where new buildings do dot the landscape, they are typically prefabricated structures or even converted shipping containers. While driving along the coastal roads, we would often emerge from the hills to find a cemetery on the edge of the field. It replaced the town. Survivors have also constructed shrines near the disaster sites, including the Okawa primary school where 74 children and 10 teachers perished when the surge breached the river banks 30 minutes after the earthquake.
Few of those residents who survived the disaster have returned home. Some live in nearby resettlement camps that are safely placed in the hills. Many have left the rural areas for regional cities like Sendai City or Ishinomaki, but others have left for Japan’s metropolises, including Tokyo and Kobe.
New 23 Unit Housing Complex Outside Onagawa
Instead of houses, construction work fills the area. Whole fleets of trucks are at work removing debris and moving the earth to fortify embankments, build roads and prepare other kinds of infrastructure. This construction work provides one new source of regional employment, including for unskilled labor like the sweepers that flank each site. Rebuilt fishing harbors are being put to limited use, and timber and oyster production is scaling up. Tourism is even increasing in the region, like at the Zuiganji temple and the nearby Matsushima Bay. Still, even major towns like Ishinomaki — which celebrated removing all disaster debris on the day we arrived — are suffering from economic conditions beyond the direct effects of the tsunami and earthquake.
Trucks Waiting for a Stoplight Along the Kitakami River
Despite all of this activity, one area remains nearly as it was on the day of the earthquake: the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant exclusion zone. One of two nuclear power plants along the Fukushima Prefecture coastline, the Fukushima Daiichi plant was compromised by the tsunami and suffered catastrophic failures over the following few days. The explosions and other problems led to the release of radioactive material into the air and ocean. The Japanese government instituted a mandatory evacuation for residents in a 20km and then 30km radius; however, the evacuation zones were initially designed to protect against contamination from an explosion, rather than the distribution of radioactive material through wind and other weather patterns. The result was many residents were exposed to radioactivity despite the government resonse. Those in the areas to the northwest of the plant — even those outside of the exclusion zone — suffered the highest contamination, although radioactive hotspots are located over northern and central Honshu, including in Tokyo. Still, the government is quick to point out that the amount of radiation released was considerably less than that at Chernobyl, and scientists currently anticipate only slight increases in cancer rates among most of those exposed.
Today, several towns within the exclusion zone remain evacuated. They are primarily frozen in time, ghost towns that — until very recently — were left as they were three years earlier. Emergency crews are removing radioactive material and have removed some debris from the streets, but nearly everything else is as it was on the day of the disaster. Cars are upturned, houses are open and plants sprout everywhere.
Thanks to Deputy Mayor Hirofumi Sanpei, we visited the small town of Tomioka that sits on the edge of the exclusion zone and is still closed to the general public. It had a population of more than 16,000 before the disaster and is located next to the other nuclear power plant in the region, the Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power Plant. Just beyond its boundaries is the former J-Village national soccer complex that is the major staging area for the recovery effort.
Deputy Mayor Hirofumi Sanpei Indicates Where We Will Travel
The town itself remains blanketed in low levels of radiation. Official radiation monitors are exclamation points in the landscape, announcing the immediate radioactivity readings in microsieverts (μSv) per hour. The areas we visited ranged between 0.07 μSv in the mountains to 4.5 μSv near one of the town’s former train stations. My personal monitor was generally between 0.2 μSv and 0.7 μSv. [For more data about radiation in the Fukushima disaster area, visit Safe Cast or this national map display.]
To put the readings into perspective, the United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a chest x-ray contains between 20-50 μSv, and radiation exposure on a cross-country flight is as much as 50 μSv. In other words, I experienced more radiation during my flight to Japan than in the few hours I was in the exclusion zone, although the kinds of radiation I experienced near Fukushima were more likely to be absorbed. To reduce the amount of absorption, I wore some protective clothing, a mask to avoid inhaling contaminated dust on a windy day, and shoe coverings, which were provided by and tested for radioactivity by Tokyo Electric Power Co. when we left the region. They were “clean.”
Radioactivity Monitor in Tomioka Reading 4.119μSv per hour
While the general public is not permitted to access the town, most residents have been recently allowed to return to survey damage to their property, although they are not permitted to move back into their homes. The delay is partly caused by the radiation and partly caused by infrastructure problems. The result is that most of the town remains eerily quiet, even though a massive recovery effort is underway.
The most visible signs of the recovery effort are the construction vehicles on the main roads, the large piles of bags of contaminated soil, and the white plastic of temporary roof repairs. Still, some areas of higher contamination are off-limits even to the town’s residents. The blockades are visible on GPS systems, and officers working road checkpoints require official government permission to enter. Beyond these areas, the evidence of the earthquake is clearer and few repairs have occurred.
After we left the area, we headed into the mountains to the village of Kawauchi. The village was affected by the earthquake but was the immediate destination for Tomioka residents fleeing the tsunami. As many as 6,000 residents jammed the scenic mountain road and tunnels that lead to the town and were then housed in schools and other sites. All were then evacuated from Kawauchi when the nuclear evacuation order was executed.
Significantly fewer residents live in the town since the evacuation order was lifted on April 1, 2012. Two of the three elementary schools have closed, and only a handful of students remain in each grade. The radiation levels in the town were the lowest we experienced in the region, at only 0.07 μSv. Area residents are tentatively optimistic about the area’s long-term prospects, but the future is unclear for this town and many others in the region.
A Kawauchi Main Street
The entire eastern coast is working its way to recovery, but it will take generations assess the total cost of the great Tōhoku disaster. Officials continue to grapple with containment issues at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, and residents and government agents continue to scale up the recovery effort. At present, the government estimates it will re-open Tomioka by 2017, although there are questions about who will return. Nuclear energy and tsunami and earthquake preparedness are being discussed around the country, where even the Tokyo governor race is becoming a de facto referendum on the government nuclear response. Japan’s nuclear future may hang in the balance.
Special thanks go to Yohei Morita and Tomioka Deputy Mayor Hirofumi Sanpei, whose assistance was essential to producing this essay.
Over the last several days, the Chicago region experienced as much as 18 inches of snow and temperatures as low as -15 Fahrenheit (roughly -26 Celsius). I love how snow transforms the city and how low temperatures affect the visibility of water vapor, so I headed out to get a sense of the South Side and Northwestern Indiana.
The following is a selection of my favorite photographs from my outings. As always, you can click through to see larger versions of the photographs on flickr.
2013 was yet another year of big changes: I finished my fieldwork for my dissertation; I started regularly spending time in both Chicago and Cambridge, Massachusetts; and I started a major shift in the balance of my photographic and video work.
In previous years, I pursued a relatively equal combination of project and non-project work. Typically, that’s meant spending as much time developing formal projects as more loosely exploring a given city. This year, I have been so busy with the formal projects that I have had much less time to “just” explore.
I worked on the documentary film (still tentatively called “The Area”) more than any other project, although I even shifted that balance. I was visiting the neighborhood nearly every day for the first half of the year, but I am now visiting in concentrated chunks. I dedicated much of the time I would have spent in the neighborhood to either writing about the project or initiating post-production work with Scrappers Film Group. If you would like to read some of my writing about the project, I have been authoring a column about the work for BagNewsOriginals. If you haven’t seen the documentary short from the project, you can view it on Gapers Block.
Of the other projects, two of my favorites were documenting Bertrand Goldberg‘s Prentice Women’s Hospital and contributing to the Kartemquin Film’s Almost There. While Prentice’s magnificent exterior presented the usual opportunities and difficulties involved with documenting buildings, the interior documentation was particularly challenging. By the time our team was allowed access to the building, Northwestern University had already begun some elements of the demolition, and the many of the floors lacked electricity for anything other than emergency lighting. Still, the experience was unforgettable, and I am happy with the work we produced. Hopefully the next building will be saved.
I’ve included example photographs from those projects below, along with selected images from my visits to other U.S. cities. You can click through for larger versions of the images on flickr (except for the Prentice images) and can click on the titles to see other blog posts or flickr sets.
Prentice Women’s Hospital
The following is a short advocacy video we made for the National Trust for Historic Preservation about Prentice.
Wheatpasted photograph of Johnny E. Parham, Jr., participant in the Atlanta Student Movement from Sheila Pree Bright’s Project 1960.
A collection of telescope houses from Buffalo’s East Side.
A surprising find in the aftermath of a massive warehouse fire on Chicago’s South Side.
Cleveland, Ohio [f]
Post-war suburban development in Cleveland-adjacent Euclid, Ohio.
The House of Soul was one of several Heidelberg Project buildings burned by an arsonist in 2013.
Scaling fish on the sidewalk in the Bronx.
Last week I traveled to Atlanta, Georgia to co-present a paper at an academic conference and spend a little time exploring in the region. I only had parts of three days away from the conference, but thanks to some planning, I was able to accomplish more than I anticipated. The following photographs are some of my favorites, although you can see others on flickr; clicking on any of the below photographs will also take you to flickr for larger versions of the images.
As usual, most of the highlights involved interactions with people doing what they love. The above photograph is of an urban cowboy named Brannu who runs an equestrian organization and is planning on offering horseback riding lessons in the pictured lot. I spent a little time walking around with him while he visited restaurants and barbershops in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood — until he headed in for lunch at a restaurant with Chicago connections. The mural behind him is by Mexican street artist Neuzz, who made the piece for last year’s Living Walls conference.
I had similar experiences in the Vine City neighborhood, which is in the shadow of the (now likely doomed) Georgia Dome. I’ll share the interactions later, but visiting in November was quite a change from the kudzu-covered August: the receding foliage provided clearer views of the neighborhood’s context.
The last time I was in Atlanta, I headed east to visit Sparta, Georgia, so this time I decided I to head west to Birmingham, Alabama. Other than being curious about the city, I was particularly interested in visiting important sites of the civil rights movement and Dawoud Bey‘s Birmingham Project exhibition at the Birmingham Museum of Art.
Among historic locations, I visited several churches, including the 16th Street Baptist Church, below. They are among the many thriving places in the city, but I was struck by the hardships still endured by residents of the historic neighborhoods that were so important to the birth of the civil rights movement. The two photographs below that of the church are representative of many of the older, unoccupied homes located in Collegeville, the home neighborhood for Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth‘s Bethel Baptist Church.
A standout from Birmingham was talking with Ennis Bragg, the owner of the North Side Bragg’s Cleaners and Record Shop. He started the business thirty years ago and has been experimenting with a variety of services and products ever since. The records may be gone, but he still sells everything from CD of his gospel group, The Golden Hummingbirds, to groceries and laundry services. If you’d like you listen to a song from his group, launch the WFMU pop-up player for this episode and slide the bar to 49:24. The song is “He’s Listening” from 1964.
As regular followers of my flickr stream know, since January I have been producing environmental video for the Kartemquin Films documentary Almost There. The film follows an 82-year-old artist who lives in the Northwestern Indiana region, and my goal was to provide a sense of the landscape in relation to his important life events.
While I don’t live far from the Indiana border, the Northwestern Indiana communities are outside my daily routine, so I was excited to have the opportunity to focus on the region. While my main work was video, I photographed many of the scenes and spent some time photographing my own subjects. I’ve selected a few of my favorite images from that work in Hammond, Whiting and East Chicago and included them below. Click on any of the images to view them bigger on flickr.