Lovesourced: Jade Doskow's "Lost Utopias"

15 Jul 2013 | By | Interviews

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In this edition of Lovesourced Alex Boniface talks to Jade Doskow, a US-based photographer whose current Kickstarter campaign aims to send her around the world photographing the remaining structures of the World Fairs.

Since 2007, Jade Doskow has been on a mission – to photograph all of the remaining iconic sites and structures of the World’s Fairs. As Doskow notes ‘World’s fairs were (and are) short lived and spectacular events, temporarily transforming a bit of land on the outskirts of a city into a magical mini-world, complete with fantastical landscaping, public sculpture, and elaborate international pavilion buildings, representative of architectural daring and ingenuity.’ They were seen as microcosms of commercial and human prowess, however after the Fairs come to an end, cities are left with large, ‘unwieldy’ structures that are expensive to maintain.

Doskow’s images triumphantly develop a narrative to display how the buildings have evolved over time, or for that matter – not.

“The photographs of these sites reflect the very history of humanity, illustrating through the remaining fair architecture what our ideals have been and are, whether those ideals involve space travel, responsible urban living, or simply the beauty and grace of neoclassical structure.”

We caught up with Jade to find out more about her fascinating project.

St. Louis 1904 World's Fair, "Louisiana Purchase Exposition," Great Basin, 2013

St. Louis 1904 World’s Fair, “Louisiana Purchase Exposition,” Great Basin, 2013

Firstly, can you tell us about your background as an image maker / photographer?

Photography first captured me when I was an undergrad at New York University in the late ’90′s. At the time I was a passionate cyclist, working as a bike messenger and training to race while I was going to school. I got into a fairly bad accident and became quite depressed, as I could not easily get around after 2 knee surgeries. I turned to photography as a way of dealing with this situation—a series of black and white self-portraits with my face obscured—and won a visual arts award from NYU. I then worked at a high-end photography lab for a few years and absolutely fell in love with large-format negatives, the way they rendered detail, light. They were like tiny theatres contained on these delicate transparencies.

At this point I was accepted into the School of Visual Arts graduate program. This pushed me from being a somewhat dedicated photographer to an academic and obsessive artist. It is an amazing program, and it forced me to really examine the reason for making something and to question if it transcended mere diaristic or documentary aesthetics and into something global and multi-layered. While at SVA I studied with top artists and academics such as Katrin Eismann, Andrew Moore, Liz Deschenes, Richard Leslie, Richard Pare, Nancy Davenport, and the all-seeing chair of the program, Charles Traub. I arrived at the idea for studying the remaining architecture of world’s fairs internationally as my thesis project.

I have joined the faculty of the School of Visual Arts and the City University of New York where I teach digital and architectural photography. I also contribute to the Esto archive of architectural photography, am a photo-blogger for the Huffington Post, am a member of the curatorial board of the design and art company “@60“, and am a represented artist at Wall Space Gallery in Seattle and Santa Barbara.

Brussels 1958 World's Fair, "A World View: A New Humanism," Atomium at Night, 2008

Brussels 1958 World’s Fair, “A World View: A New Humanism,” Atomium at Night, 2008

Who are your photography heroes and how would you describe your own style?

I have long admired Gordon Matta-Clarke, who took his architectural knowledge and used it to create something sculptural and ethereal out of actual existing structures, then photographing these transient ‘interceptions’ as both evidence and ultimately art object of this performative action occurring. Hiroshi Sugimoto has this innate sensibility for distilling form and space into its purest, basest essence—ghostly smears in black and white. Abelardo Morrell creates extremely exciting and beautiful camera obscuras out of rooms.  I’ve always appreciated William Christenberry’s studies of humble Southern shacks, stores, churches, barns, and houses. And how could I forget Walker Evans—I absolutely adore his pictures of structure and space. He has this perfect, poetic simplicity in how to convey the feeling of a place. His innate sensibility is empathetic and profound, whatever the subject.

My pictures tend to have a sense of grandeur but also a dreaminess to them. What I like about shooting film and large format is that even if I measure out the image carefully on the glass, there is plenty of room for surprise. I usually push my exposures as long as possible, creating smears of movement—branches blowing, clouds drifting across the sky—that causes a palpable tension between these moving soft parts and the monumentality and solidity of the architecture depicted. This particular project is architectural, archival, documentary, but also extremely subjective as to how I as an artist experience a place.

 

Brussels 1958 World's Fair, "A World View: A New Humanism," Atomium, 2007

Brussels 1958 World’s Fair, “A World View: A New Humanism,” Atomium, 2007

What was the motivation behind ‘Lost Utopias’ and what excited you most about it?

At its heart, my work is about fallen promises in architecture, be it utopian or pragmatic. While the idea first stemmed from a chance stop on a tour bus in Seville by the 1992 World Exposition site, it is ultimately the paradox between these  extremely fantastical and fanciful structures and the seemingly mundane or tragic path that has fallen to them. I love the challenge of trying to convey both the excitement and energy of the era in which this object was created as well as the organic development of the cityscape around it, how contemporary urban planners have responded to these unusual pieces of architecture. There is an unpredictable element to every site that I have photographed.

 

Paris 1937 World’s Fair, “Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne”, Trocadero, 2007

Paris 1937 World’s Fair, “Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne”, Trocadero, 2007

Was it difficult to gain access to all of the buildings? Were any authorities reluctant to the project?

I have been very fortunate thus far in that most people I have worked with are quite enthusiastic to be part of this project, especially once they see the photographs and press. I would also mention that using a large-format camera excites people, the novelty of it. Security officials tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to DSLR, immediately judging it as less professional or touristy or suspicious, whereas they are very welcoming to me, even sometimes asking for a demonstration. I’m in no way disputing the professionalism of a top-quality DSLR by the way—this is simply something I’ve observed throughout my travels.

 

Montreal 1967 World's Fair, "Man and His World," Buckminster Fuller's Geodesic Dome With Solar Experimental House, 2012

Montreal 1967 World’s Fair, “Man and His World,” Buckminster Fuller’s Geodesic Dome With Solar Experimental House, 2012

You say the sites reflect the history of humanity, and the ongoing challenges of urban preservation and redevelopment. Is this something you’ve tried to amplify in your images? How have you done that?

World fairs were symbolic and competitive on many levels, and the architecture created for them profoundly reflects both certain cultural convictions and the technology available at that time. My pictures clearly represent the architecture, public art, and landscaping from these temporary events.

For example, in Montreal 1967 World’s Fair, “Man and His World,” Alexander Calder’s L’ Homme, 2012 one sees a stunning example  of Alexander Calder’s larger sculptural work. This abstract figure is heavy and firmly rooted in the earth yet seems to stretch beyond earthly limitations. To find this sculpture one must traipse through wooded paths in the heart of Parc Jean-Drapeau until reaching a brick plaza looking out over the city and featuring the sculpture. It is not easily accessible. There has been ongoing discussion as to if this object should be moved to a more visible location in the city, yet of course this where it was created for the purposes of the Exposition—and would be very difficult to move.

Philip Johnson’s New York State Pavilion from the 1964 World’s Fair looks as if an alien spacecraft took a wrong turn and ended up in Queens, New York; its design directly reflects the space-crazed atmosphere of the era. While volunteers have been painting the Pavilion to turn attention to the fact that it is in desperate need of repair, it has been landmarked but not renovated, and much of it is rusting and has weeds growing over it.

The triumph of all of the fairs even to this day is the Eiffel Tower. In the Universal Exposition of 1889 it proved France’s cultural superiority (despite being described originally as ‘useless and monstrous’ by some) and ultimately an excellent example of smart urban planning. Of all the cities that I have photographed Paris by far has had the most vision in how to turn these temporary events into permanent and extremely grand improvements to the entire infrastructure of the city. In my photograph of the Eiffel Tower one sees not just the tower but also the Trocadero and Palais de Chaillot, constructed for the 1937 world’s fair, and tourist buses and vans and traffic of people unloading to visit the tower.

 

Seattle 1962 World's Fair, "The Century 21 Exposition," Universal Fountain, 2010

Seattle 1962 World’s Fair, “The Century 21 Exposition,” Universal Fountain, 2010

Buildings, not people are the main focus of your images. Do you think different ‘rules’ apply to architectural photography than they do to travel, nature or any others for that matter? Do you approach your ‘subjects’ in a different way than you would in a portrait, for example?

I am a formalist at heart, and architectural photography is by tradition a fairly formal mode of photography. It is slow and meditative and requires being in tune with subtle changes in light and shadow upon form, rather than waiting for a ‘decisive moment.’ Time of sunset and sunrise and light directionality are major components in a strong architectural photograph, as well as a carefully location scouting to determine what components in the environment are important to that structure’s story.  An architectural photograph is a collaboration between you and the architect, even if they are unaware that you are making the picture. It is key to understand the purpose of the building and what narrative specifically you are trying to convey. It is a deliberate and studied way of working.  A major similarity between it and portrait photography is simply the ability to focus solely on the subject in front of you and tune everything else out, mentally and visually.

Pick your three favourite photos from the collection and explain why you chose them.

Montreal 1967 World's Fair, "Man and His World," Habitat ‘67, 2012

Montreal 1967 World’s Fair, “Man and His World,” Habitat ‘67, 2012

This symbolizes, for me, a lot of what this project is about. It is an extremely futuristic/ Brutalist urban housing complex designed by Moises Safdie and the architecture clearly reflects the era in which it was constructed. What I love about this photograph is that it shows the ambition and imagination of the building and also the discoloring of the concrete, the funky additions people have made to their homes that break up the style of the whole, and the colorful landscaping.

 

Philadelphia 1876 World's Fair, "Centennial Exposition," Fair Washrooms, 2008

Philadelphia 1876 World’s Fair, “Centennial Exposition,” Fair Washrooms, 2008

This image has always been a quiet favourite of mine. These are the most humble of anything that I have photographed and there was just such a romantic aura to the place.

New York 1964 World's Fair, "Peace Through Understanding," New York State Pavilion, 2008

New York 1964 World’s Fair, “Peace Through Understanding,” New York State Pavilion, 2008

This has become the photograph that me and the project have become most well-known for, and again, it says so much in a simple way—the ivy growing around the column, the unsightly fence leading up to the structure, but on the other hand the beautiful glow of the setting sun on the foliage, the observation decks majestically receding upward in the distance. 

What equipment do you use?

I use a large-format Arca-Swiss 4″x5″ camera—still shooting film! I then scan the negatives on an Imacon, spend from 2-10 hours in Photoshop retouching and finessing the color and feeling of the image, and then output Digital C-Prints on Fuji Crystal Archive matte paper. I work with a really great printer here in New York, Carl at Luxlab.

Philadelphia 1876 World's Fair, "Centennial Exposition," Memorial Hall, 2008

Philadelphia 1876 World’s Fair, “Centennial Exposition,” Memorial Hall, 2008

What’s next for ‘Lost Utopias’?

I have big plans for this project, which I am breaking up into phases: Phase I: North America, Phase II: Europe, Phase III: Asia. I am planning a big debut of the work in New York to coincide with the 50-year anniversary of the 1964 site. When all three phases are complete I will be publishing a book of the work, which I’m anticipating will include about 150 photographs. It is a big story I am trying to tell and with every shoot I feel I learn more about who we are and how it is expressed in the cityscape around us.

To Pledge your own support…

Follow the link below to Jade’s Kickstarter campaign, or visit her website.

 

Forgotten Legacies

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