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S U B N A V I G A T I O N
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Interviewed Aug 14, 2002, by J

Scott Lapham
www.scottlapham.com

Update: In 2003, Scott recieved a grant from the RI Council for the Humanities for a project, “Five Years, Eight Mills”, that documents eight industrial mill buildings slated for demolition through photography and oral history.

 
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Scott Lapham
 
 
Interviews:
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Elizabeth Keithline
Scott Lapham
Rafael Lyons
Julie Manso and Carl Dunn
the Men of Letters
Rag and Bone Bindery
Howie Snieder
Herb Weiss
Cliff Wood
May Yao
 

A conversation about his work and the buildings that inspire it

I met Scott on the loading dock early and we went up the back stairs to his fourth floor studio. It’s a luminous corner space split down the middle with a wall that curves up from the floor, halfway to the ceiling, and back again, like a crescent moon. He shares it with a bookmaker and they have a comfortable common kitchen space off to the side. A lot of natural light, beautifully marked floors (you can almost hear the wheels of industry), and huge beams cut across the top of the space. He says he was lucky to get it when he did, and isn’t planning to let go of it anytime soon.

Interestingly, before our conversation even starts, we discuss the parameters. He doesn’t want the location of his studio mentioned, and I, naively, ask why. “You don’t know who’s looking at this site. It’s great that you are doing it, we need something like it, but don’t think developers and preservationists can’t both find something interesting in it.” And so, at his request, I will not disclose the location, and understandably so, after seeing the glory of his studio. The people who run his building are nice, but they are only human. The right price can get anyone to sell.

Scott is a native New Englander and has been doing photography for a number of years. He also runs the community darkroom at AS220. His photos are gorgeous black and white (the web doesn’t do it justice at all) and are usually printed 16 x 20" or larger. His subject matter for his personal photos are largely mill buildings and they evoke many emotions. Some are romantic, some are tragic. When asked if they are documentation or fine art, he says both. “I don’t think of myself as a photographer. I am interested in time and a sense of place. I make photographs, but I don’t limit that view. I try not to stay within the parameters of documentary photography, I like to be more narrative. I love it when a picture works on a reality level and an abstract level.”

His photos are striking because of they way they are manipulated. Depth of field, focus and contrast are skewed to an almost completely abstract effect. A 4 x 5" studio camera (the lens and the plate where the image is exposed do not have to stay parallel) allows him this latitude without having to do any darkroom tricks. Each shot is carefully tested and tried until “it just feels right” with a series of Polaroids he keeps in his sketchbook, holding on to them until he is ready to shoot the final film negative. Sometimes, exposure times of a few seconds to a few hours allow him to capture unconveyable scenes and moods.

“ I don’t take these photos as a form of protest, but the fact remains that I took these photos in the last four years, during the ‘Renaissance’.” Beautiful photos of decay during a time of renewal.

When talking about his subject matter, Scott says his photos can be seen as “romantic”, but admits to the mixed history of the buildings. “These are places where people worked 24 hours a day in two shifts under harsh conditions. Machinery broke down, people got hurt, the place was dirty, smelly, full of fumes, and of course there was no air conditioning. There were no OSHA standards. People don’t work like that anymore, and for good reason. There were also a lot of class issues, workers versus organizers and owners.” Yet these buildings are more than that, they symbolize a work ethic that isn’t around anymore, a pride in craft. No one builds “temples to work” like these anymore. The kind of people who worked in the factories don’t even exist anymore.

These structures are a piece of necessary history. “I think it is insulting to tear them down. They were so many things, good and bad, to generations of people. They are too, in essence, the blocks on which our present economy is based on. Other generations will never be able to appreciate what a real job was like at the turn of the twentieth century. As soon as you don’t give a shit about history, you lose it”

“These buildings are what has enabled me to maintain a business as a photographer, to have a studio, to have a community darkroom, and for them to be affordable. Nobody wanted them, but people like me did. They have enabled me to exist as an artist and person in the community. These buildings have been incubators, and I hate to say it, but there aren’t many of them left. There were a lot of people in Silver Springs, and now they are in the market again, and in this building alone there is a thirty person waiting list.”

And it’s not just artists, its businesses too. I noticed on my way a number of “Blah Blah, Inc.”s and they didn’t sound like a single person studio. They are a newer phenomenon, not to mention the recent condo fad. And yet they are still being torn down right and left to create similar but sub-par structures. “I’m at a loss for time. I want to do my artwork, I run the program at AS220, and I run my business, but artists, if they want to protect their way of life, need to spend some time with these issues. It is so hard to frame gentrification issues in a way where you don’t sound like a whiner, and it is so hard to be well-informed and current on every front.”

It is hard to believe, but we have to be sure that urban planners have the formula in mind when they start projects. Get the artists and gay community into an area, lure them with cheap rent, they create culture, they create an attraction to an otherwise blighted area, and then price them out slowly (or not so slowly) with yuppie stores and condos. It happened in Cambridge MA, it is happening in Somerville MA, it happened on Benefit Street, Smith Hill, and soon, the area around Eagle Square and parts of Olneyville. We as artists have to know that we are playing into the cycle. What can we do about it? How can we play in the cycle but not get caught up in it? It seems like artists are finally starting to get it. Groups and individuals are starting to buy their spaces like artists in SoHo did in the sixties. The Monahasett Mills, the Munch House and the ARC are good examples of this. Unfortunately, that does not make us immune. Mills are usually built near rivers, near downtown hubs, and this makes their land alone very valuable, often times, more valuable than the structure itself on paper. It’s very frustrating, very difficult to foresee any real change. “It takes money to maintain, to purchase, to secure and this is something artists usually lack. It also takes a lot of organization, which is something artists sometimes shy away from.”

“The exceptional thing about the Eagle Square fight, although it was slow in coming, was the amount of people who were interested in the fight. The amount of media coverage was fantastic. I hope that happens again when the need arises, or before the need arises.”

“I want to make these buildings dramatic again, instead of the urban blights they sometimes are. When we let them get run down, the community around them, the kids in the neighborhood play there, maybe get hurt sometimes. They want them gone, and for good reason sometimes. Companies move away and leave barrels of mystery stuff behind. I want to make them beautiful again, I’d like to see them appreciated for what they could be.”

 
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