Thursday, January 8, 2015

Ruinous Beauty: A Conversation with Rusty Tagliareni and Christina Mathews @ Antiquity Echoes

Rusty Tagliareni and Christina Mathews post photos and videos of abandoned buildings at Antiquity Echoes, one of the most affecting and accomplished websites devoted to the documenting of rural and urban desertion. (YouTube channel here.) Tagliareni's and Mathews's goals are to "preserve, educate, and share...small epitaphs to the often overlooked bits of history that lie rotting all around us." Tagliareni photographs and writes, and Mathews takes videos; both edit and research. Through their dedication, seriousness, and ambition, fused with their considerable skill and their dramatic taste for the Gothic, the couple has created an extraordinarily impressive collection. The sites they research and document range from train stations, farmhouses, theaters, and hotels to mansions, castles, hospitals, and schoolhouses—all empty, all in the process of letting the world back in, most paired with archival photographs of their past, pre-abandonment glory, all staged in ruinous beauty via deliberate, evocative, cinematic compositions. While many photographers of abandonment are content to document from the outside, rarely entering the buildings or the sites, Tagliareni and Mathews go inside, roaming the ghostly, shadowy interiors, probing hallways, crumbling staircases, peering out of pane-less windows, searching not only for the correct photographic point-of-view with which to capture the perverse grandiosity of an abandoned building, but for the tiny detail, the relic that narrates, or half-narrates, imagined stories. Their work is provocative and vital.

Recently, I virtually sat down with Tagliareni and Mathews to discuss Antiquity Echoes, the ethical and legal issues involved in photographing abandoned buildings, and the cultural value of nostalgia.


How did you both get started photographing abandoned places? At your site you write that your intention is to "preserve, educate, and share...small epitaphs to the often overlooked bits if history that lie rotting all around us." Can you talk a bit about this mission?

For the sake of reader sanity, this will be as abridged an answer as we can give: Antiquity Echoes is Rusty Tagliareni and Christina Mathews. We first met in 2006, through Myspace, believe it or not, and some time shortly thereafter we began dating. Being as we both had interests in things less ordinary, we enjoyed the mystique that is often associated with abandoned locations, and visited them often. In fact our very first dates was a visit to the ruins of a rotting old estate, overgrown in the forest.

After a year or so of visiting places, and occasionally grabbing snap-shots as we went, we came upon a place that skewed our collective perspective on not just the practice of documenting abandoned places, but the genuine importance of it. We were in Essex County, New Jersey and happened to be driving directly past a massive sprawling complex of buildings. From the looks of it the place was long abandoned, so we immediately turned around to investigate the place closer. Finding a pot-hole covered access road we made our way to the inner campus and parked away from the eyes of passing motorists. With little effort we came upon a wide open door and crossed the threshold.
Overbrook Asylum

Greeting us in the day-room which we had entered was a scene from some night terror come to life. In a dim corner, perched upon a dry-rotted vinyl chair, caked with dust and flakes of peeled paint, sat a headless body. The fight-or-flight urge was immediate, however we somehow overcame the urge to run flailing back to the care, and quickly the feelings of shock and dread subsided. Upon closer investigation the headless form turned out to be an old CPR dummy. We found its faceless head in the debris next to the chair.

As we ventured beyond the eerie day-room, we were in awe of what we found inside. The place was clearly some kind of hospital, that much was made obvious by the countless beds, large day rooms, and various offices. The deteriorating hallways stretched on for what seemed like forever in all directions. This was not the kind of place we could get to know in the time frame of a single day. The amazement we were feeling then-and-there inspired us to do our very best, and attempt to document what we were seeing before us. Beyond that though, we tried to capture what were were experiencing on an emotional level.

Not having planned this trip, and arriving in the late afternoon, we didn't have very much daylight in which to film. All told we spent roughly an hour inside the old rooms and halls of the disused hospital. Upon returning home we immediately began conducting research to better understand what it was that we just saw. It turned out that the place was indeed a hospital, but not in the way we had assumed. What we spent the afternoon exploring was the decaying husk of the Essex County Hospital Center, or if you were to call it by its original title, “Overbrook Asylum.”

At this point we came to two startling realizations. First, though the places we had filmed up until that point did indeed all carry their own tales and some weight of history, it wasn't until that moment that we had ever seen a place that had affected so many people over such a long period of time. The amount of history found in just a single ward of Overbrook was deeper than all of the places we had been up until this point, combined. The second realization came after some more in-depth investigation into the old hospital center. In researching the history of the facility we were able to gather together a time-line as well as begin to see just how massive of a facility this place once was. There were thousands of stories in those walls. During the hundred-plus years of Overbrook's operation, over ten thousand people spent their final moments there. All these stories were completely unknown to us until we stumbled upon the old hospital by pure chance. We also learned much about the evolution of psychiatric medicine, both in practice and in pharmaceutical development, which eventually led to the downsizing and closure of the massive complex. All of this newly found knowledge was spring-boarded by the most unlikely of things, an abandoned asylum on the side of the road. One which many people likely ignore as they drive past on a daily basis. If we had to put a pin-point as to when Antiquity Echoes actually began, it was at that very moment of realization. These abandoned places held much more than just abstract mystery and picturesque settings. There were countless stories here, and untold lessons to be learned.
Overbrook Asylum

Over the next couple years we set about documenting as many places as possible, focusing on still-imagery and videography. We upgrade equipment as necessary. In 2009 we unceremoniously launched our website. It focused on multimedia presentations of abandoned locations, with the aim of not only capturing viewer interest, but imparting knowledge. It had been our hope from early on that through intriguing imagery and subject matter we would be able to spark a genuine interest in learning that may not otherwise occur, much like what happened to us with Overbrook. We called our website Antiquity Echoes.

Much to our amazement, even amongst the near-infinite other websites out there on the Internet, Antiquity Echoes began getting noticed. For being a niche website, it was getting decent daily traffic within about a year of its inception. The best part about the website (for us) are the occasions in which we get to speak with people who remember a location from before it was abandoned, perhaps having worked at a now-abandoned asylum, or once enjoyed a stay at a long-deserted resort. Our latest endeavor is actually taking place offline. In the summer of 2014 we were approached by a publisher who was interested in putting out a book about Antiquity Echoes. As of right now we are currently hard at work on said book, which is scheduled for national distribution in the fall of 2015.

Do you have a favorite site among the many you've documented? Why?

While there may be some locations we have visited which stand out more than others, such as Greystone Psychiatric Hospital or the Bennett School for Girls, it's impossible for us to pick a place and say we prefer it to all the others. Where we actually derive the most enjoyment is from featuring locations that are unlike each other, it's the variety of the work which we find a lot of enjoyment in. Lets say we update the site with a set from a sprawling abandoned shopping mall. Immediately after that we would likely aim to feature something more intimate, like an old estate or farm house. No place is more important than another. It's all relative.
Bennett School for Girls

Bennett School for Girls





How do you deal with ethical and legal issues that you may face in your work. Many decry the cult of "ruin porn," where waste and decay, often the result of unfortunate circumstances for a building's/site's original owner(s), is exploited in the name art, or even sentimentality. What are your feelings about this?

To us this is history. Perhaps at its most raw, but also at its most accessible. We have spoken at school seminars from elementary to high school levels, about the importance of photojournalism. If you can gain someone's attention, through interesting photos and videos, then you open them up to learning. It's really that simple.

Case in point: a while back we spoke at a high school, one of the topics was about documenting abandoned asylums. Of course abandoned asylums are of interest to teenagers, they're mysterious and full of ghost stories. The imagery of decaying buildings is a hook, upon which you attach information. Well, by the end of the 45 minute session the class knew all about the history of mental healthcare, evolution of modern day pharmaceuticals, and the de-institutionalization of the country. We know this because after each session we heard people in the hallway telling others about not only the abandoned buildings, but why they became abandoned, and why there are no longer a need for such large facilities. They all listened to what we spoke about, and they retained the knowledge because it was linked with things that piqued their interest. Our website is just a history lesson wrapped up in some cool aesthetics.
State Hospital

State Hospital

Obviously we are not alone in documenting abandoned places, and there's currently so many other people doing it that we hesitate to even call it an underground community anymore. Still, the community is what's so great about all this. There's no way any one person, or group, would be able to document the globe. Thanks to the Internet however, we are all able to witness wonders like the ruined palaces of Russia, the abandoned sprawls of China, or the overgrown castles of Europe. In a global community of this size there will always be bad seeds, but that by no means makes the community bad. As it is with any group, you tend to only ever hear about the bad people and/or actions, and they oft overshadow all the good because of this. 

What is your attitude about trespassing, about breaking the law in order to do your work? (If that occurs.)

Trespassing is a against the law, and there's no real arguing that. Some people may trumpet that their actions are of a higher calling, or say that trespassing isn't a real crime, but it is. Being respectful goes a long way. Police and private security workers are real people, and it's not their fault they have to bust you for being somewhere you're not supposed to be, it's yours. There's no faulting someone for doing their job.

What equipment do you use? Do you have issues with the pre-set filters and lenses that users of Hipstamatic and Instagram employ?

Throughout the years we have accumulated a lot of equipment, mostly on the video end of things. While we won't name everything we use, we can give a basic rundown here:

For photography we are very partial to the Pentax line of DSLR cameras. They capture color amazingly, and are very well weather sealed. From laying in decayed sheet rock, to temps of -15 degrees, to filming in a summer downpour on a beach, never once have our Pentax cameras shown any issues. Of course we have a few lenses, the most utilized being a Sigma 12-24mm wide angle. Wide angle lenses are an absolute necessity for architectural photography and video. We also use a sturdy tripod, as we tend to have a lot of long exposures due to only using natural light.
State Hospital

On the video side we have a lot more going on. First and foremost, our primary video camera is a Canon 5D MKII. It captures brilliant footage, approaching cinema quality. We can go on about how great that camera is, but this whole interview would slowly dissolve into a Canon commercial if we do that. As stated above, we have a wide-angle lens, and several other lenses which are utilized as required. One of our most important tools is a computer controlled dolly system, which allows us to capture those smooth panning shots. At a non-collapsible six feet long, it's no easy thing to lug around, but it has given our work a style that we are truly proud of. It also allows us to film in nearly pitch black situations, through the use of time-lapse photography. For a single shot we actually will often end up with nearly a thousand photos, which we then stitch together to create a moving picture. Much like stop-motion animation works. It's all incredibly time consuming, with a 15-second shot often taking roughly 45 minutes to capture. The final product is always worth it though.

Now, as for Instagram and preset filters, actually, we have an Instagram and use preset filters on there all the time, so that probably answers your question. Mobile photography and editing has its place, and Instagram is a great example of it. There are some great artists on there, and who is anyone to say what is and is not a great photograph? If an image invokes an emotion, or makes you stop and admire it, then it's a good image. Who cares how it came to be, the fact that it exists is all that should matter.

Can you tell me a bit about Greystone's Last Stand?

Greystone's Last Stand very much embodies of what we have been aiming to do for years now, and have been slowly working toward ever since that seed of intent was planted ages ago when we first stepped foot in the Overbook asylum. It is a culmination of urban exploration, education, historical preservation, and personal insight.

Greystone's Last Stand is a documentary-style film which we are creating in alliance with the organization Preserve Greystone, and with the aid of several other wonderfully talented people including Mark Moran from Weird New Jersey and Phillip Buehler of Modern Ruins. It tells the story of Greystone Psychiatric Hospital in Parsippany, New Jersey. From its opening in 1876, to its current state of abandonment, and the state's plans for demolition. The film began life as a short of maybe five minutes, to help the organization Preserve Greystone garner public awareness for their cause. Shortly after we began filming the state of New Jersey announced plans to demolish the building, and things quickly snowballed from there. People were coming out from all over to speak with us, from locals, to past employees, to community leaders. This past summer we spoke with Robert Kirkbride, a descendant of Thomas Story Kirkbride, who designed the plan which Greystone was built around. More recently we were filming at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in West Virginia, a saved and restored asylum of the same design as Greystone. The owners of which submitted interest to the state of NJ to purchase and restore Greystone, which was turned down. To say that the scope of the film has broadened would be a gross understatement.

We also hope to show that there is a real value in the art of what most have come to call “Urban Exploration”. This community of people with an interest in the abandoned is in-fact a preservation effort. Certainly a nontraditional one, but a strong one nonetheless. Filled of genuinely good people who are interested in the preservation of history and architecture.

Finally, what do you feel is the cultural value of nostalgia?

Nostalgia is a double-edged sword. It's wonderful to fondly remember the past, but we must not become so lost in it that we neglect the here-and-now. Take away from history the lessons taught, and use them today, so that tomorrow may be better than what came before.

We document abandoned places because they are what call to us. We do not wish to live in the memories of these places forever, but to capture and pass their stories along to all those who care to listen. Hopefully through these actions we see a better respect given to abandoned places in the future, either through revitalization, or by simply not being left to rot in the first place.


Here are a few more examples of Tagliareni's and Mathews's extraordinary work:

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