Inner Urban — Permanent Scars on our Land
by Ryan Nemeth
The series “Inner Urban” speaks to the complex relationship between humans and the urban environments we build and inhabit, therefore the messages and themes driving this series are multi-faceted and a bit circuitous. Definitively, I can tell you that this series was brought to life to speak to what I perceive as many of the shared concerns that are a by-product of our growing global urban existence.
In consideration of urban quality of life issues, there seems to be an inexhaustible and palpable tension surrounding the relationship between urban development, economic growth, consumerism and the many sustainability issues that arise from our cities as they expand and become more saturated with human inhabitants. Some of us are willing to stop and contemplate this relationship and others remain uninterested. Personally, I feel that we have reached a tipping point where it makes sense to question some of the urban systems and corollary human habits that we ascribe to.
It is no secret that over the last half of the 20th century, many countries around the globe have posted contiguous decades of increased urban migration. A large part of this collective and growing human movement has seemingly been driven via the pursuit of “opportunity” inherent to urban resource centers. The point to know is that this evolving global paradigm shift or change in behavior has also yielded changed urban environments with much of their accompanying growth and resource allocation often being perceived as threatening, unjust, unequal and or unsustainable.
Irrelevant of one’s perspective or position, the fact of the matter is that cities have become the figurative battlefield and a literal place for opportunists and futurists as well as preservationist and environmentalists to vie for the perpetuation of their unique ideologies about land use and space. For me, the urban construction zone was and continues to be a very natural place for these ideologies to come to a head. Thus, the series “Inner Urban” was born.
For those who are familiar with my photography or writing, there would be no question that I am very interested in urban landscapes and trying to understand the processes by which humans choose to shape land. Naturally, as I move about my town or any city for that matter, I am always on the lookout for interesting photographic subject matter. Increasingly, as I have trained my eye, it has become a bit more natural and much easier for me take note of unexpected places and forms that exist in landscapes. “Inner Urban” came to life via a simple walk in my neighborhood that was accompanied by a bit of contemplation.
I live in the Northwestern United States in the town of Portland, OR, a city steeped with history and filled with many young idealists, artists and creative types. Until the last 20 years or so, my neighborhood Sellwood, was known primarily as a blue-collar working neighborhood. If you talk to old timers, this perception shifted drastically as people began moving closer to city centers here in the States in the early 2000s. New city growth and the proximity of the neighborhood to the urban center has simply driven land values up such that everything in the neighborhood has become mostly unaffordable for middle-class families. In fact, I would be willing to bet that more than half of the residents in the neighborhood could no longer afford to repurchase their homes. In our case; an expanding preference away from car culture and commuting, the existence of urban growth boundaries that restrict city land subdivision and the influx of many new people have all created price pressures which have changed the landscape of the inner city.
In my neighborhood, many of the homes were built in the early 1900’s and are filled with craftsmen era character and detail. Thus, there is charm, history, and a specific spirit to the place. For many, these neighborhood characteristics have been worth salvaging and protecting. For others, the ambience of the neighborhood has been a touch point for prospecting and investment. What has ensued is the demolition of many old homes in the neighborhood to make way for multi-residential high rises and high-end monstrosities. My assumption is that many doctors, lawyers, bankers, c-level executives and young professional have recently made their way to the hood. After all Portland is still cheap comparable to other West Coast towns, but the city growth has led to very high rates of home demolition. This practice has led to vocalized backlash and much concern in the neighborhood about land use and development. Many long time residents have taken up their crosses by posting signs from the local neighborhood coalition. They read, “STOP DEMOLITION OF OLD SELLWOOD HOMES”. I happened to walk by one of these signs and that experience was enough to give life into this project.
I chose to work on this series because I’m really interested in sustainability issues. It also turns out that humans consume a sizable share of global non-renewable resources in the construction and building process; making it one of the least sustainable practices that many humans carry out. Notably, construction also produces one of our largest waste streams.
More specifically, here in the States, Americans occupy only a small fraction of the constructed spaces that we live in. Over the last century, the footprints of our homes and our cities have increased dramatically and therefore it is my personal view that the habitual and cultural practice of building underutilized space is a waste of both wealth and national resource. Furthermore, on a global scale, this practice depletes the globe of valuable non-renewable resources and perpetuates the problem of humans encroaching on wildlife and other fragile environmental and non-renewable resources. It is no secret that science and statistics corroborate the causal link between human occupation of environments and the loss of biodiversity in wild places. Thus, pursuing this series through this particular subject matter seemed like a good way to express concern for the many environmental problems we face.
In terms of everything coming together, this series progressed very naturally. I actually eat at a local Teriyaki food cart that was next to the construction site and I happened to notice that the homes behind the cart were being taped off for demolition. The developer had signs on the property, so I was able to call and ask for permission to photograph on the construction site. From the outset, my expectations to gain access to the job site were fairly low as it is often easier to turn down photography requests. Coincidentally, I am also never quite sure how people will respond to my request to photograph their property. In this case, the developer was very cordial and open. Thus, I felt a bit lucky to have been granted permission to photograph on the job site. The most astonishing thing was that the developer also agreed to allow me to photograph inside both homes before their demolition.
It is a bit comical how the actual agreement unfolded, as I believe both parties were interested in taking advantage of one another to get what they wanted. After I contacted the land developer, both he and the listing real estate broker wanted to use my imagery as a way to market and show the ongoing progress of their job site. It sounded like their aim was to display these images on a website to help presell units and communicate about development milestones. Anyways, I agreed to provide marketing materials in exchange for site access, little did they know that I gave them my least favorite images. As planned, their ambition to use my imagery seemed to fade away.
My belief is that the developer was very aware that the demolition of these houses was a sensitive neighborhood topic and he wanted local residents to be able to vocalize their concerns about the job site. The demolition and site preparation process unfolded over several months and I would visit the site every day to see if anything worth documenting was unfolding. You will see in this series that there are many pictures where I walked through the old home onsite prior to it being bulldozed. It was interesting to capture the space both before and after it existed.
It is worth sharing a bit about the piano that shows up in the series. I walked into the house expecting it to be totally empty and there was a really beautiful and functional old piano in the living room of the house. Apparently, no one wanted to deal with getting it out of the house so it was abandoned for the unfavorable fate captured by my camera.
For me, the piano serves as larger metaphor for not only what was transpiring on the job site but also for some of the bigger ideas and concepts that surround urban growth: The question arises, should we abandon old and functional items to make way for shiny and new? What are our obligations and what are the environmental costs of doing so, why even care? Seemingly in the West and in many developed resource abundant societies, we leave these questions to very immediate and impulsive considerations. I believe, if humans are to ever become a more sustainable and conservation oriented species that we must wrestle with these concepts and find reasonable responses with corollary behaviors.
The job site foreman allowed me to photograph alongside both he and his crew as they worked. Thus, the working process was really engaging and interesting. In a way, the process that unfolded was kind of like watching kids play in a large sandbox. Onsite, there was a large backhoe, dump trucks and lots of other small-scale demo equipment in constant motion. Thankfully, the foreman entrusted me enough to wander the site at will. I was able to take pictures of anything I pleased; it was a wide-open shoot. So I started the project in August and I think I stopped shooting in January; the weather was quite interesting as it changed drastically from hot to cold and even snowed during that time.
Personally, I had never really photographed in a construction zone and I found it a bit tough to compose viable images in this environment. Once the housing structures were pulled down, the site was essentially void of subject matter. In addition, I had to contend with both flat light and lots of glare producing surfaces, lighting was often not very optimal. I should mention that I do not really consider in-process construction sites as aesthetically pleasing to the eye. These spaces are usually chaotic and filled with disorder, making it tough to isolate out objects to produce cohesive compositions. Working this job site definitely required making visual order out of chaos.
My hope was to capture and reveal the process of destruction. Although there were lots of people working this job site, I tried to keep faces and other objects out of the frames that would enable the viewer to contextualize the images. In a way, my intention and hope is that the resulting images are void of queues or triggers of place and time. My point was to try and make imagery that felt like it could exist anywhere, I was seeking visual transience. Personally, I believe that urban growth issues are a universal by-product of the human experience and something that we all must wrestle with. Thus, it felt relevant to have a corresponding visual strategy for the series that would help viewers from different places to connect and engage with this experience.
For me, the photographic medium is captivating because it serves as a way to archive and document reality, while also functioning as a creative tool allowing the image-maker to document subjective realities and many things that are also not readily apparent in the world. Thus, there is an inherent paradox to the medium and I find this intriguing. Although, I must say, the most appealing thing about photography is that it enables me to make art through life experiences. Personally, I like to move around; I am not the type that has the patience to sit in a studio all day, photography enables this preference for me while still allowing me to channel creativity.
My background is very atypical for an artist; I started out in the industry on the business side of the arts. After studying Economics in college and with no intention of working in the art business, I moved west to Santa Fe, New Mexico. On a tangent, for those of you who do not know Santa Fe, I would highly recommend a visit as it definitely one of the most unique cities in the world, Santa Fe is also now the third largest art market in the United States. Not bad, for a little mountain town of 70,000 people. Anyways, as fate and luck would have it, I found work in the art world and I held various positions in six different galleries over the course of a decade. From this experience, I feel that I definitely know the ends and outs of the gallery business; the good the bad and the ugly. However, looking back, this was nothing short of an amazing experience. It was also a chapter in my life that led to an unintended education in art.
Although I have been a creative spirit from a very young age, I must admit that I have had no real formal training as an artist. In terms of education, the decade I spent working in Santa Fe required me to pick up and learn: art history; technical knowledge related to various artistic mediums; common and specialized artistic processes; art handling, preparatory and conservatory duties; sales/marketing and legal issues related to art; as well the operational side of the business. Beyond this, what really stands out as tremendously valuable was the fact that I was able to experience really high caliber world-class art in a very personal and intimate way. Commonly, my job responsibilities would yield the need for additional communication and interactions with the artists about their work. Thus, the education was up close and personal and looking back I consider this time as the bedrock of my training in art. However, I should mention that I am a never stop learning type of guy; there is always something new to pick and I feel that I have never really mastered what I would like to.
I currently work full-time as a Marketing Manager for a lighting business that specializes in commercial LED lighting. This has been a practical way for me to contribute to global energy reduction and the sustainability issues that I care about. Having a steady gig is nice, however, I must admit that not being able to photograph on a regular basis can be a bit frustrating. These days, I find that I am regularly filled with ideas and creative purpose that I am unable to take action on.
When appropriate and I am able, I carry my camera with me when I am out and about on sales calls. Most of my shooting is pretty well planned as I generally find subject matter of interest and figure out when to try and go back and capture images. Sometimes the image is still there, other times not. I always hate when I miss an opportunity to capture something worthy; makes you realize just how fleeting moments in time can be!
I don’t know why, but I’ve always been interested in landscape art in general. The only thing I can attribute this to is the fact that I have lived in 6 different U.S. states with highly unique landscapes. I have experienced life in the swamps, deserts and mountains of the States. I definitely admire the work of some of the first Dutch landscape painters. I am also really taken back by romantic landscape painters like J.M.W Turner, in addition, the Hudson River Valley painters are worth noting, Bierstadt and Church to name a few. Also, it is easy for me to find contemporary work that holds my attention. I was just looking at Corey Arnold and Lucas Foglia’s photography and there is no shortage of nice stuff out there!
In terms of the photographic medium, by far, the famed New Topographics crew has had the most affect or direct influence on my work. My favorite photographer out of the group is definitely Robert Adams. He also sits atop the list of my favorite photographers. Coincidentally, Robert lives down the road from me in Astoria, Oregon. Although, from the New Topographics crew, I also really admire Frank Gohlke’s images and writing, Thoughts on Landscape is a must read for those interested in landscape photography. Through Frank’s writing I also learned about J.B. Jackson, who is pretty much the father of cultural geography. His writing is tremendous and his ideas still inspire very relevant and interesting ways of viewing and understanding landscapes.
I am pretty methodical and deliberate in the way I shoot. Generally, I will take a concept or theme and try and produce images that speak to this idea. Over the last 4 or 5 years it just so happens that I started building many small series of works related to landscapes with environmental themes. My intention from the get go has been to make a book with this body of imagery, but it has taken me a while to tease out the larger concept driving the smaller series of pictures. I should mention that I will be publishing my first book, Anthroposcenes by mid-2017; it speaks to the new epoch in which we live.
Beyond this, I am a black and white monochromatic photographer by choice. I choose to shoot monochrome images as they are a bit more abstract and look much less like the color world we live in. Also, I value black and white imagery, as color tends to impart temporal cues in the image. My own take is that the absence of color helps to promote a feeling of transience in the final image and for now I value this quality.
I should mention that there is definitely an underlying motive and rational for this choice. Unfortunately, the impacts and effects of many environmental issues can unfold over decades and even centuries. Quite often, these are problems that persist for generations and leave permanent scars on our land, changing ecosystems and global biodiversity in permanent ways. If you question this, I would urge you to read first hand peer reviewed science, it does not lie! Anyways, for many different reasons and motivations we continue to choose to leave these issues to our children and beyond. Somehow, I feel that producing images in monochrome will help the images and messages found in this work stay more relevant over time. Photographs are definitely a means by which humans archive and understand time and one can only hope that the advancement of innovation and the ability for human beings to reflect on our history will help to usher in a new era for the environment.
Find my book here: www.ryannemethphoto.com (mid-2017)
Follow my landscape journal here: www.terratory.org