Katherine Westerhout, a connoisseur of urban decay, excels at documenting interiors of defunct factories, theaters, resorts, hotels, train stations, churches and other emblems of the so-called American Century. She frames her pictures so precisely and in such exquisite light, it’s sometimes difficult to contemplate the underlying tragedy behind the crumbling relics. It’s there, certainly, but it’s not the only thing there. The quality that overwhelms in her photos is that of great beauty.
Westerhout’s pictures tell stories in graphic terms with an aesthetic force that drives straight past political rhetoric and any guilt we might feel from taking pleasure from images derived from the misfortunes of others. They fall into no convenient category. They evade journalism on the one hand, typological studies on the other and the banality of conceptual photos that lean too heavily on texts to illustrate theory. The only textual information Westerhout supplies are the names of buildings and their locations. The pictures tell us everything else we need to know.
Two on view here, both of Grossinger’s, the famed Catskills resort, sum up her working method. One shows an empty, graffiti-scarred indoor pool, where lawn chairs float in fetid rainwater. They’re in a section marked “Deep End”. (The stenciled words, conspicuously visible, bring up present-day associations to “under-water” real estate deals — something Grossinger’s clientele, in the resort’s heydays, probably couldn’t have imagined.) Another view of the scene shows poolside chairs surrounded by ferns growing out of dense black mud, yet another sign of disrepair. The incoming light, streaming through floor-to-ceiling windows, gives the plants an almost unearthly glow. The room is obviously vacant, yet it feels eerily inhabited, as if a crowd of vacationers had recently been evacuated. If you look up from the graffiti in the first picture, you’ll see thick redwood-colored beams and an imposing Modernist chandelier perfectly preserved, openly defying neglect and time. It’s this extinct-yet-alive quality and the positioning of squalor next to grandeur that give Westerhout’s pictures their unique charge.
Architecture has always been an irresistible subject for photographers. But when it comes to interiors, Westerhout’s only peer is Candida Höfer, a German artist specializing in large-format pictures of palatial rooms in Europe. Both give us head-on views of immense, overbearing structures. But differences outweigh similarities. Where Höfer’s sanitized, gilded interiors seem devoid of human presence, Westerhout’s overflow with it. One reason is that Westerhout’s “ruins” fell into decrepitude only in the past generation, so it’s easy to imagine yourself or your parents working, worshipping or playing in them; whereas with Höfer’s you cannot, and the difference isn’t just about Europe vs. America. It has to do with artistic intentions. Höfer deals with empty opulence (or, perhaps, more accurately, opulence emptied out). Westerhout is all about presence that lingers.
Like many fine-art photographers working today, Westerhout relies on old-school methods: a large-format film camera that she shoots only in available light. Her large-scale prints, which are actually quite modest by Chelsea standards, have the quality of wet paint, such that you can practically smell the grime and the mold and the rusting machinery and the oily stink of cesspools. But more than anything, it’s the quality of light that defines her art. Westerhout spends a lot of time on location waiting for it to ripen, and the impact of light captured in those split-second decisions is something you can feel bodily.
Consider Westerhout’s picture of the Palace Theater in Gary, Indiana. The place looks bomb-struck; the floor is rubble. But the Venetian scene that serves as backdrop remains intact. The decimated ceiling resembles a Ravenna mosaic that had been subjected to the pouring and scraping techniques of an abstract painter. The scene is radiant. A preternatural luminescence also permeates Westerhout’s picture of an abandoned hangar-like building in the once-thriving Hunters Point district of San Francisco. The vanishing-point perspective draws us in, but reflections in water are what propel the image into memory. A puddle at the center of the frame mirroring the building’s steel girders practically opens up a third dimension.
Not all of the pictures in this show work so well. A few are lackluster. One, of a broken-down sofa inside a glass-littered hotel room in Detroit, caught my eye because it appears to be a composite of different exposures. It’s a common method used to equalize shadows and highlights in extreme high-contrast situations. Problem is, it looks contrived. More so in Westerhout’s hands because of the “straight photo” compact she’s made with herself and with her viewers. One wonders what it was about the nondescript scene outside the windows that made Westerhout want to give that portion of the image equal weight.
Overall, in the context of an otherwise strong show, these are peccadillos.
Pictures like Westerhout’s force us to rethink the history and value of seemingly quotidian structures – and, a way of life that’s lost as these buildings slip into obsolescence. The images don’t agitate for historic preservation, a revitalized manufacturing base or anything else. They simply give us the ability to bear witness to what may well be an irreversible process.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Katherine Westerhout: “At Long Last” @ Electric Works through February 18, 2012.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.