Photographer Paul Raphaelson, whose images of urban landscapes have been housed in collections at the Museum of the City of New York and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among other places, was the last lensman given access to the Domino Sugar Factory before it was demolished last year. The hulking Brooklyn structure, once the largest sugar refinery in the world, supplied America with half of its sugar in its heyday. Raphaelson has paired up with photography editor Stella Kramer and architectural historian Matthew Postal to launch a Kickstarter campaign that will help preserve the building’s history by publishing the photographs along with essays that put the vivid images into a broader historical context. He is seeking $7,400, which Raphaelson says will help him submit a serious proposal to a book publisher. ANIMAL talked briefly to the photographer about the last days of the factory and what it meant to New Yorkers, young and old.
What compelled you to photograph the Domino Sugar Factory?
I had been working on some industrial photographs that were very different. I was photographing the interiors of raw, industrial spaces — the kind of spaces that my friends and I would renovate a little and live in for our arts studios. When I read that the Domino Sugar Factory was going to be demolished, I realized that the opportunity for going there and photographing that place was going to be very short-lived and so I decided to try to do it, thinking, “This might be good for the art project.”
It was actually very hard to get in there because by that time, Two Trees, the current developer, had bought it. They tightened up security and they were very serious about getting on with the plans to develop the site. So the days where people could sneak in there and take pictures on the sly were over. I basically pestered them by email for months, and finally they got back to me and said that I was one of many photographers who was interested. They narrowed it down to five and they gave us each a day to photograph there. Based on that day, I realized it was an amazing place and it was completely unsuited for my original industrial project. I wanted to do more with this, something serious and special, and I needed more time there, so I came up with the idea of a book and I reached out to Stella Kramer, a world-class photography editor and Matthew Postal, who is an architectural historian who actually wrote the original preservation report on Domino, and they both agreed to meet with me.
We met with Two Trees. They said yes, and in October I was given a full week to photograph there. After that, I spent a really intense week, photographing every inch of the place. They wanted me to finish up as soon as possible because they were already starting work on taking the place apart.
How many photos did you take?
I would say several hundred. It was mostly a very slow process of photographing. I wasn’t walking around with a hand camera and going, “Click, Click, Click.” I had the camera set up on a very big tripod and I was taking long exposures. It would take several minutes to take every picture that I took. So it was very much like working with a big camera, where you are working very slowly and methodically. It was enough to keep me busy. The final count of pictures that I was looking at for the book was a little over 100.
Did anything about the building surprise you?
In one sense, I didn’t know what I was getting into, because the kind of factories I’ve photographed in the past were much smaller; light industrial spaces or warehouses. It was never anything where you have an enormous building built around multi-story-high machines and equipment, and it was not usually places where the machines and everything were still in place — and were, in many cases, over 100 years old. The scale was very different, and the visual density of the place — just how much stuff and how much detail — that was all very different. It was still intact as a factory. Unlike many places, it had not changed since people walked off the job, except that it was really dirty and really dusty and paint was flaking off of everything. You could really get the sense of the differences between the experience must have been in there when it was a working factory versus what my experience was while we were there after it was abandoned. You saw steam pipes everywhere and you know everywhere it was just burning hot, probably 24 hours a day. Huge machines and signs everywhere saying, “Protection required,” so you know it was just deafening and hot and filled with soot. Probably a hellish place to work, in some parts of it.
But when I was there, it was as quiet as a church. The only sound was wind coming through the missing windows and skylights, hearing things creak, and dripping water. Very quiet and cold and peaceful. A meditative, dark space to walk around. An incredible contrast to what it must have been like.
What are the essays in the book going to talk about?
A historian is going to write a historical essay, which is going to be pretty involved. It’s not just about Domino in isolation. The sugar trade was really central to Brooklyn’s economy back in the 19th and early 20th Century. This was an institution in Brooklyn. The workers were made up of immigrants from pretty much all over the world and that had a big influence on the makeup of Brooklyn, around there. And if you extend that to all over New York, the sugar trade was a really big deal in some ways that people don’t talk about very much, including the part it played in the slave trade. My understanding is that there were slaves, or the equivalent of slaves, working on sugar plantations well into the 20th Century. Sugar coming from those plantations was coming up on barges into Domino. So there’s really a much broader story that he’s going to try to tie this into.
I’m going to write a little bit about why I think we are so interested in images of post-industrial space. Why it’s so fascinating to us to look at these factories. Especially people who are my generation and younger, who have mostly grown up in a post-industrial America, we tend to react to these kinds of places very differently from the way that our parents and our grandparents react. My friends and I see an abandoned factory, and we see really interesting history and we see stories and we also see a kind of an opportunity. We see it as more interested and a richer kind of architecture to be repurposed or to be enjoyed. Whereas, the older generations really just see it as an example of loss. In their heyday, they experienced a different version of this country that identified with industry and they saw Domino as this thing that made our country great and powerful and grandiose. To see the country turn into something and reuse a shell of these things, it’s much more painful to them. They see the absence of something. Both sides of that stories and how they co-exist are really interesting.
I’m working very hard to avoid the trap, which people talk a lot about nowadays, which is Detroit-style ruin porn. Where people see photography of urban decay and industrial decline as a kind of opportunistic aestheticization of something that some people find very painful. Some people describe is as “dancing on the grave of history,” and I understand that.
(Photos: ©2013-2015 Paul Raphaelson)