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Spotlight: Capturing the Atlantic City Donald Trump Left Behind

By David Schonauer   Monday July 23, 2018


Atlantic City became famous as a seaside playground.

Now it’s often seen as a kind of warning.

It was first developed by railroads as a health resort. Its heyday came in the prohibition era of the 1920s, when the consumption of alcohol and a host of other vices went unregulated there.

But with the growing affluence and car culture of post-war America, the public discovered other vacation destinations, and Atlantic City's sheen faded. In the 1970s, city leaders turned to the promise of casino gambling to restore the city’s lost glamour.

“Vast sums of money poured in, jobs were created, and organized crime was kept at bay. Until a new kind of predator arrived in the name of Donald Trump, a fabulously wealthy real estate developer from New York City,” notes New York City-based photographer Brian Rose, who has spent the past year and a half photographing AC as it looks today — a denuded urban landscape that, he says, was left in the wake of Trump’s Atlantic City foray. “Eventually,” he notes, “all of Trump's casinos failed, but not before he sucked out the lifeblood of Atlantic City, leaving thousands jobless, the city bankrupt.”

Rose is currently crowdfunding a book  at Kickstarter featuring his Atlantic City work. He leaves no doubt about why he created the series. “Atlantic City was not on my radar screen until Donald Trump's election as U.S. president, which I saw immediately as a great calamity and a threat to American democracy. I had to do something as an artist and photographer. I was aware of Trump's casino failures — harbingers of what he would bring to the presidency. And as I looked into it more, I realized there was a project I could undertake only two hours down the Jersey shore from New York City. So, a few weeks after the election, I rented a car, drove down, and began shooting.”

Rose’s work in Atlantic City is not only the story of Donald Trump’s disastrous casino undertaking. His pictures are emblematic of a boom-and-bust, greed-and-graft history that has defined the city. Film director Louis Malle told the same kind of story in his film Atlantic City, which was released in 1980, when casinos were rising in AC.

Rose began by focusing on Trump's two abandoned casinos, the Trump Plaza and the Trump Taj Mahal. “The Plaza's signage had already been stripped off by the time I got there, but the Taj Mahal was still in full Trump regalia, with onion domes, elephants, and lots of gold,” Rose says. “I then moved outward to the surrounding blocks, which in many cases were vacant, and even a little scary. So the story extends beyond Trump's properties to the more general condition of the city.”

Rose, who is known for his imagery of urban landscapes undergoing transformation — including Manhattan’s Lower East Side and Meatpacking District — shot his Atlantic City photographs as he has other projects, using 4x5 color film. “Instead of a view camera with movements, I used a Travelwide 4x5, an extremely lightweight camera I picked up on Kickstarter a few years ago. I corrected perspective afterwards in Photoshop,” he says.

“The book’s cover photograph [above] features the Revel Casino, which was yet another casino failure — not Trump's this time,  but a project supported by former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie,” says Rose. “It opened briefly, and then sat empty for four years. It just reopened as the Ocean Resort Casino after being bought and sold a couple of times at fire-sale prices. A number of my photographs show the extreme difference in scale between these mammoth casinos and the older more fine-grained city. It's an urban planning disaster area.”

Much speculation surrounds Donald Trump’s invasion of Atlantic City: (Rose writes in his Kickstarter campaign that Trump’s wealth “was fed by illicit Russian money, and Trump's casinos served as money laundering machines of unprecedented scale.”) During the 2016 campaign, The New York Times  published an article titled “How Donald Trump Bankrupted His Atlantic City Casinos, but Still Earned Millions,” noting that the presidential candidate often boasted of outwitting Wall Street firms that financed his casinos. “[E]ven as his companies did poorly, Trump did well,” reported The Times. “He put up little of his own money, shifted personal debts to the casinos and collected millions of dollars in salary, bonuses and other payments. The burden of his failures fell on investors and others who had bet on his business acumen.”

“Louis Malle, when he created his film Atlantic City, called it a metaphor for America as a whole,” says Rose. “Now, having suffered the ravages of Trump, it is metaphor and reality.”

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