Jade Doskow: World's Fair

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday May 28, 2014

The first installment of Jade Doskow's long-term photographic exploration of World Fair sites goes on view tonight at Onishi Project Gallery, in New York City. Having been following the progress of this work with interest, I invited the artist to do a Q&A for DART. Here is what she wrote:

Q: How did your interest in architectural subjects take hold?

A: I spent my early years growing up in a 275-year-old farmhouse, complete with a damp stone root cellar, smoke house with a tiny door that only I could fit through, and a vast wilderness of a back yard where I would often lose myself in the overgrown woods. In the summers I would visit my grandmother in her tiny apartment in the Bronx overlooking the end of the subway lines, or my godparents in Soho in their loft (long before such a thing was the norm). These very rich, very personal architectural experiences definitely instilled a deep sensitivity to the psychology of space around me.

I moved to New York when I was 17 and within several years became loosely interested in photography. Following undergraduate studies at New York University I landed a job as a darkroom contact printer at LTI, a photo lab in midtown with extremely well known clients. At this point I did not have much exposure to architectural or large-format photography. I had taken a 4x5 class at the School of Visual Arts and initially was turned off by the many steps. However, through contact-printing the large-format negatives at the lab, specifically, of Robert Polidori’s 5x7 architectural pictures, I fell in love with these thin, delicate sheets of film in which luminous layers of 3-dimensional-space were captured and flattened out in the picture frame. It was an epiphany for me. Now I only shoot large-format!

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

Q: Decay seems to be a recurring theme in your work; where did the impulse to engage with architectural “dead stuff” begin?

A: It’s interesting to hear my work described as such, because I never think of the pictures as describing ‘decay,’ although that could fit some part of them. For one thing, again, I did literally grow up in a somewhat-crumbling, very old stone house. Friends of mine in childhood found the house somewhat spooky and would often tease me that it was haunted. For me, this haunted quality was, quite literally, home. So I suppose you could say that there is a certain comfort in decay for me.

‘Decay’ implies death; making these pictures is more about giving these structures a new life. An inspiration over the years has been the work of the late multi-media artist Gordon Matta-Clark, who first trained as an architect but then went into performance, film, ‘happenings,’ and large-scale sculptural architectural interventions that he described as ‘cuttings.’ Essentially he would find buildings slated for demolition—including a residential home, an office building in Paris, apartment building in the Bronx, and a warehouse on the West side of New York City, to name a few—and create sculptural cuttings through the structures, essentially giving these buildings a new life for the moment of the cutting and the moment of the filming and/or photographing. I found this concept intriguing, of finding a new aesthetic and metaphysical life within a human-made structure that was going to be destroyed.

Another inspiration has been William Christenberry, who approached dilapidated, humble structures in the South with poetry and grace. He would return to these small buildings again and again, over a long period of time, capturing them as they would transform from recognizable buildings into masses of Kudzu weeds. In a photograph from Red Hook, Brooklyn, that I took several years ago, Green Mystery House, it is very much a homage to the peak beauty of an old city townhouse that had lived its life but was now more home to animals and ivy, a new life that was different than the original intention of the structure; still a home, just not for people.

I would emphasize that most of my work is a visual conceptualizing of organic and inevitable change and new life rather than simply decay.

Q: The idea of photographically exploring World Exposition sites is an almost double-dead trope, as the World Expo phenomenon seems to be losing support—at least here in the U.S. Was this a purposeful play on historical changes or was it strictly the architectural features of the sites that appealed to you?

A: Unbeknownst to many Americans, World’s Fairs are still held! The largest one most recently was Shanghai in 2010, but even since then there was a smaller one in Yeosu, South Korea, and upcoming in Milan in 2015.

However, yes, the traditional concept of ‘World’s Fair’ is one that is a bit dusty, as the highest points of these events arguably were the Expositions of the 19th Century, where people were first exposed to such huge inventions as photography and electricity. The Eiffel Tower was constructed specifically for the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle. Many of the 20th century Fairs were important for many reasons as well, including the forward-looking, utopian architecture that comprises much of the Fair architecture, such as Moshe Safdie’s Habitat ’67 in Montréal or Mies Van der Rohe’s German Pavilion at the 1929 World Exposition in Barcelona.

Philadelphia 1876 World's Fair, "Centennial Exposition," Fair Washrooms, 2008. © Jade Doskow.

There is something of a time-travel concept that intrigues me about photographing these sites. Here I am as a 21st-century photographer approaching the remaining architecture and landscaping that was constructed very specifically to reflect a certain era’s ideas of utopian, futuristic architecture—or in the case of the 19th-century, Western cultural superiority through Neo-classical architecture. Also appealing is how these unusual structures age, or have been rehabbed, and how the surrounding environment has been thoughtfully (or not) designed around the remaining fair architecture, such as in my photograph Buckminster Fuller’s Geodesic Dome with Solar Experimental House (top).

Q: What is there about World Expo structures and sites that most intrigues you?

A: The world’s top designers, architects, and artists came together to create these magical and temporary mini-cities, usually on an a large, unused plot of land on the edge of a big city. (Many fair sites were either overgrown fields, swamps, or even garbage dumps!) There were years of effort that came into creating these sites. Yet, paradoxically, after the fairs closed, there was often a severe lack of planning for how to maintain or repurpose the fair sites. While the majority of the Fair architecture was intentionally temporary, there were many instances where the buildings were left standing but without an operating budget, such as Philip Johnson’s magnificent New York State Pavilion from the 1964 World’s Fair, which right now is having its 50th birthday and is once again in the news as needing financial support. Conversely, a scale replica of the Parthenon was constructed in Nashville for the 1897 Exposition, initially intended to be temporary. The citizens of Nashville fell in love with this huge thing in their city, and funds were raised to renovate it for permanence. Now you can see the Parthenon without going to Greece! It is this profoundly arbitrary approach to preservation that is visually, conceptually, and atmospherically very exciting to me as a photographer.

Q: World Expos have always had grandiose themes that today seem almost quaint. Did themes such as “Peace through Understanding” [’64, New York]; “Century 21” [Seattle, 1962]; “Progress and Harmony for Mankind” [Expo ’70, Osaka]; “Man and His World” [’67, Montreal]; “The Age of Discovery” [’92, Seville]—or any others—play into your approach to, and discovery of, what lives inside the remains of these places?

A: These themes were carefully created for marketing purposes to reflect, once again, cultural priorities of the certain era of that fair. In the remaining sites I have found a real gap between these themes and the remaining architecture or art and the history of the event, except for a few instances. The New York 1964 Exposition was triumphant on some levels and plagued with complication on others, such as Civil Rights protests regarding employment at the Fair. This clearly does not reflect the notion of ‘Peace Through Understanding.’ The Montréal 1967 Exposition, one of the most successful of the 20th Century, on the other hand, had a theme of ‘Man and His World.’ The huge stabile structure of Alexander Calder, l’Homme (bottom), is a magnificent example of a piece of public art that directly relates to the this theme, as well as Buckminster Fuller’s Geodesic Dome, an early example of utopian, forward-thinking sustainable building practice.

Q: The sub-title of your series, “Lost Utopias,” suggests that idealism and an almost superhuman yearning for progress is no longer part of the global conversation. Can you enlarge on this, pro or con?

A: The global conversation is different on multiple levels as a result of technology. When the great 1851 Exposition opened in London, nobody could find out about the newest inventions on their iPhone in two seconds. One had to travel to a World’s Fair to experience the latest and greatest in human achievement. It was here that people experienced the first great photography exhibition, and in Chicago, electricity. There are many ‘firsts’ that one could only experience at a World’s Fair and the grandiose nature of the sites reflects this. The 20th Century sites are much less majestic as a result, with a few exceptions, because there wasn’t as much as a necessity to bring crowds to the Fairs outside of purely monetary and nationalistic reasons.

So it’s not really a pro or con, it just is. We are in a different world where information that once traveled slowly can be had in an instant.

As for the idea of ‘Lost Utopias,’ these sites did, for the time of the fairs, represent a certain utopian ideal that has been lost both in the physical manifestation of the site today and within the realities of what has been possible within the confines of actual urban development.

New York 1964 World's Fair, "Peace Through Understanding," New York State Pavilion, Winter View, 2014. © Jade Doskow.

Q: Do you feel that the recent restoration of the Unisphere in Flushing Meadow Park seem faithful to the original? Or does it seem a little too shiny?

A: I was not there in 1964 to witness the actual, original shininess of the Unisphere—I actually don’t mind it—the material it is comprised of was a special, custom-made metal pattern by Rigidized Metals Corporation—UN 1. It deserves a bit of sparkle.

Q: Your photographs have a dreamy quality that perhaps stems, in many cases, from the silvery quality of the light. Could you speak about how the fanciful architecture of World Expos has influenced your shooting and/or post-production aesthetic?

A: It took a bit of magic for these events to happen, and I try to capture that in my photographs. This is not ordinary architecture; these are not ordinary monuments. The sites are typically glorious and abandoned and fantastical all at once. I will spend three to five days on a site soaking up the atmosphere and how to best illustrate the energy of the place. Every city has its own quality of light as well, which changes the feeling of the photograph. When photographing St. Louis, Montréal, and Brussels, there was a wonderful, soft, subdued, moist light, which further enhanced the mysterious charge of the images.

I am shooting 4x5 film, which then is scanned; then I work on it in Photoshop. I have pretty strict rules for how much is done in post-production; perspective and composition must be gotten right in camera. Post-production is strictly for enhancing that which is already there in the negative to my best abilities. I only take a photograph if the quality of light is poetic enough that it causes the subject to transform into an optimal and ideal representation of itself in front of my camera. If the light is not right, the picture is not made.

Q: If there were one World Expo that you could attend, which one would it be—and why?

A: This may seem the obvious choice, but definitely the Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. This World’s Fair epitomized both the optimism and the darkness inherent to these events. The image of a glowing white city starkly illuminated in a city populated by dirty stockyards and freight train lines is an incredible vision to imagine, as is the amount of talent that went into the design—Daniel Burnham and McKim, Meade, and White, Louis Sullivan, Frederick Law Olmsted. As far as going over the top with ambition, the Columbian Exposition took the title. In an attempt to outdo Paris’s Eiffel Tower of 1889, the first Ferris wheel was constructed, a mammoth construction in which each car could hold 65 passengers. It was no Eiffel tower—all that is left are some of the bearings and supports, buried in Jackson Park.

Jade Doskow | World’s Fairs | Lost Utopias opens Wednesday, May 28 at Ornish Project, with a reception from 6 to 8 pm. 521 West 26thStreet, NY, NY.

Montreal 1967 World's Fair, "Man and His World," Alexander Calder's L’ Homme, 2012. © Jade Doskow.

Architectural and landscape photographer Jade Doskow (b. 1978) is known for her rigorously composed and eerily poetic images that examine the intersection of man, nature, and time. Based in New York, she holds a BA in Philosophy of Art and Music from New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study and an MFA in Photography & Video from the School of Visual Arts. She is currently on the photography faculty of the School of Visual Arts and the International Center of Photography, and was named by American Photo as 'One to Watch' in 2013. Doskow's workwhich has been exhibited internationallyfocuses on the complex and often-contradictory relationship between utopian architecture and the ever-changing environment around it, which she captures with a large-format 4x5 camera.

She is currently working on completion of the first phase of a long- term project exploring the remaining architecture and landscaping of past world's fair sites. Doskow's Lost Utopias project has received press internationally and on the web, featured in American Photo, the New York Observer, NPR Picture Show, ArchDaily, and Wired, among numerous other publications. She is represented on the East Coast by Kipton Cronkite in New York and on the West by Wall Space Gallery in Santa Barbara, CA.