Built Landscapes: Elena Dorfman's Empire Falling

By Conor Risch

© Elena Dorfman
Among the rock quarry sites Elena Dorfman photographed over the course of two years were those that had been repurposed either informally by swimmers or as part of developments. Click on the Photo Gallery link below to see more images from Empire Falling.

While a good deal of the infrastructure that was tied to industrialization and manufacturing in the United States seems to lie in ruin, people have found ways to retrofit and reuse some of what was left behind. In cities that remain economically stable or even vibrant, old buildings are often repurposed as fashionable residential addresses, offices or cultural institutions. Landscapes altered by industrialization, from rivers spoiled by pollution to salmon runs once blocked by dams, are being restored.

Quarries have also been repurposed. Some have become parks or features of new neighborhoods. Others, filled with fresh water from rainfall and other sources, are unofficially co-opted for recreational swimming and diving.

It was the diving that first brought photographer Elena Dorfman to quarries, where she filmed divers for a video she was creating on commission for an architectural firm’s exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Working on the video, Dorfman began photographing the people jumping into the water. Later she became interested in the landscapes themselves, and over the course of two years explored and photographed quarries throughout the Midwest and parts of the South. A new book of Dorfman’s quarry images, Empire Falling, was recently published by Damiani/Crump, an imprint edited by curator and author James Crump.

“It’s difficult even to articulate why these places grew on me at first, and what compelled me month after month to make these [trips],” Dorfman says. “Some are really difficult to access. In some cases I was absolutely trespassing and getting thrown out, climbing fences, not wanted at all.” The compulsion to photograph the quarries was, at first, esthetic, 
she adds.

She researched using Google Earth and GPS devices, figuring out the best ways to access the mostly abandoned quarries. Compelled by the “visually astounding” landscapes, Dorfman made straight, digital photographs of the quarries. “I knew that the straight pictures were not what I wanted, but I didn’t know what I was going to do with [the images],” she says.

Over time Dorfman devised a strategy of layering multiple photographs together in order to create “embellished” landscapes that reflect what she saw in these places. The process began with 4 x 6-inch prints that she made of certain images from each trip. “By hand I just started putting them together and making visual references in my head about what could possibly look good together,” Dorfman recalls. “I have physical cutouts of every single picture that’s in the body of work because I had to first look at them and feel them on a piece of paper.” She then layered the images digitally to create the final compositions.

The passage of time, reclamation and human intervention in, and abandonment of, these landscapes are themes brought forth in the images. Though two of the images show people, for the most part human presence is implied. “Graffiti was important because these are places where people have been, where great industry was vibrant,” Dorfman explains. Now “they’re lost, they’re desolate, they’re abandoned. [People] took what they needed and moved on, and it’s left these fallow. By putting the graffiti in I wanted to reference that this was a place where people were or have been. Or continue to go, whether or not they’re supposed to be there.”

Dorfman chose to make the large-scale exhibition prints using metallic paper, a reference to the lingering presence of industry in these places. One print, which measures 10 feet in length, shows the full scale of a massive wall of graffiti that was painted in one Kentucky quarry.

In creating the book, Dorfman included details of each of the 21 final compositions, to allow readers to look into the images and glean that each tells a layered story about the past and present of the place it depicts.

Dorfman’s title for the work, “Empire Falling,” references a particular quarry “that I absolutely fell in love with,” from which the Empire State Building was constructed, and where one can still make out the silhouette of the building in the ground. The word “Falling” in the title references the jumpers, or divers, that originally drew Dorfman to the sites. Yet the title has also “taken on different meaning as I worked through the series,” she says.

In all her work, Dorfman is “interested in viewer perception and taking the viewer out of their comfort zone or to a place that’s unusual.” In the case of Empire Falling, her method of layering images to create depth, a strategy she says she will continue to use going forward, encourages viewers “to reconsider these often ignored spaces that are tucked away and hidden behind fences and walls; these weird American landscapes. [This is] my way of saying: Hold on, there’s more to it, take a deeper look.”

Related Article:

Elena Dorfman Photo Gallery 

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