Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
An artist obsessed with capturing lonesome structures takes on tall, urban buildings.
Viewed as part of a skyline, a typical skyscraper is just one of many towers adding life to a city. But, to paraphrase a zen koan, what does a tall building mean when there's nothing else around it?
Ben Marcin, a photographer fascinated by the isolation of subjects we expect to see in clusters, presents the answer in his latest project, called "Towers." In it, Marcin picks out the middle section of individual tall buildings and presents them against a stark, white background. The results wipe the humanity right out of the structures.
Having previously photographed homeless camps and lonely rowhouses, presenting architectural solitude is not new for Marcin. But after climbing up parking garages and walking onto elevated freeways to get the shots for "Towers," Marcin feels something different about his work this time around.
"Unlike the rural and row houses that I often photograph—where personality and individualism predominate—the urban towers exist at a kind of emotionless macro level," the photographer writes on his site.
We caught up with Marcin via email to ask him about how he selects his subjects for "Towers" and what he's gotten out of the series so far:
After doing the row house and homeless-camps projects, how did it feel to put this one together?
There is a sense of isolation that I’m striving for in all of my series about buildings and homes, and "Towers" was no exception. However, the ways I went about photographing these projects were quite different.
With the homeless camps, I was rooting through bushes and underneath highway overpasses trying to get very close to the tents. The row houses required some patience because I couldn’t have any cars parked out front blocking the view. I also had far more contact with people while shooting these two series and some of the interactions could get quite intense.
With "Towers," my job was to get as far away and as high [up] as possible in order to leverage a shot without having to point the camera straight up. If I was lucky, I’d find a good vantage point from the top of a tall parking garage or an apartment building that had access to the roof. Occasionally, I’d have to walk out onto an expressway or bridge to get a clear shot. A couple of the towers were shot from nearly half a mile away, although I’m usually much closer.
What inspired you to take on this project?
I have always been interested in solo structures, whether they’re tiny abandoned houses in the middle of the desert, single row houses standing alone on destroyed city blocks, or the skyscrapers that represent the epitome of architectural glory—massive and inspiring while also alarmingly cold and impersonal.
The sheer scale of these buildings is incredible, but at the same time you don’t have a clue as to what’s going on inside.
What was your process for picking out specific skyscrapers?
My first tower was Burnett Plaza in Fort Worth, Texas, which I photographed in 2011. The Burnett is 576 feet [high] and 40 stories tall, by far the tallest building in town. There is nothing else around to compete with it, so it stands there looking like it’s a mile high. In New York City, it would simply get lost.
From that moment on, whenever I was in a big city, I would pick out the outliers—the skyscrapers that stood out from the others in some meaningful way.
Is there one that particularly stands out to you as presented in "Towers"?
Burnett Plaza in Fort Worth epitomizes what I was going after in this series—a generic, bleak honeycomb of awesome architecture. The Energy Centre in New Orleans and the 2400 Chestnut Street apartment building in Philadelphia are also two classic towers.
Did a specific architectural style work best in this series?
I’m very much drawn to abstract patterns, and each tower that I picked was chosen for its endless repetition of concrete, metal, and glass patterns—the more to build in that sense of anonymity.
Early on, I made a conscious decision to remove any context from the buildings by completely taking out the sky. Given my other work, this was a somewhat risky endeavor. But I think it strengthens that feeling of power and starkness. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of people working or living within these walls. Yet from the outside, all you see is silence.
Is this an ongoing project?
Absolutely! I’ve recently been to a number of cities like Denver, Richmond, Albany, and Portland, Oregon, that have some incredible towers. Surprisingly, Manhattan is not one of the better sites for this work because so many of the buildings run up against each other.