Renwick, Roosevelt Island, New York (1856). New York City’s only designated landmark ruin is a onetime smallpox hospital and nursing school located on a small island in the East River. Designed by James Renwick Jr. (better known for Manhattan’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral), the Gothic Revival structure was built by convict labor from stone quarried on the island.

“It’s almost like casting,” he adds. “To get the real wonderful effect of it the subject matter should be situated well in nature—urban ruins wouldn’t look as good.”

Drooker, who majored in American Civilization at Penn and has worked in documentary filmmaking as well as photography, first started experimenting with infrared back in the mid-1990s. At the time, he had to use infrared film, which required a special camera-filter and was so sensitive to light that it had to be loaded and unloaded in complete darkness. On location, that involved a black bag with two armholes and “lots of fumbling,” he recalls. These days, he uses a 35-mm digital camera converted to shoot only infrared. The difference is “like night and day and much preferred,” he says with a laugh.

In his choice of sites, Drooker aimed to be “eclectic rather than encyclopedic.”  The finalists include some familiar landmarks—Harper’s Ferry, the Alamo, Alcatraz—as well as others that are much less well known. Among Drooker’s own favorites is Bannerman Castle, built in the early 1900s as a warehouse for military surplus. “It’s like an old Scottish castle plunked down in the middle of the Hudson River about an hour north of New York City,” he says.

Another standout, the White House Ruin, a part of the Anasazi Ruins in Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, that dates from the 1200s, had special meaning for Drooker. It had previously been photographed by Timothy O’Sullivan, “who made his reputation as a great Civil War photographer but later joined a lot of the military expeditions out West,” he says. “I’ve always loved his work.”  (A stereoscopic image made by O’Sullivan in 1873—perhaps the first photo taken of the site, Drooker says—is reproduced early in the book.)  Famed nature photographer Ansel Adams also photographed the area much later, and, while his own work is different from his predecessors, Drooker sees himself as continuing in a tradition.

Having been inspired by a non-U.S. site to compose American Ruins, Drooker is now returning the favor with his follow-up project—a likely multi-year effort to photograph ruins around the world, with an eye toward “architectural diversity as well as some surprises,” he says. For example, while he won’t be shooting the Parthenon “because everyone has seen it,” he hopes to get to Sicily, “where there are some great Greek temples.”

Jan|Feb 08 Contents
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Ghost Landscapes
Images from American Ruins by Arthur Drooker C’76

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Anasazi Ruins, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona (300-1200). The Anasazi (Ancient Ones) built multi-story villages and compounds in alcoves beneath canyon walls that rise more than 1,000 feet. The White House Ruin, named for its whitewashed central-room walls, once housed about 100 people in 60 rooms made of stone blocks and mud mortar.

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©2008 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/02/08