Joseph Elliott’s photographs ‘Monumental’ at Muhlenberg Martin Gallery
Says Joseph E.B. Elliott of “Monument and Ephemera,” a retrospective of his work: “The thread through all of it is exploration of places that people don’t normally explore: industrial sites, industrial landscapes, older urban interiors, structures and places that people don’t normally get inside.”
The exhibition of three decades of Elliott’s photographic work continues through April 22, Martin Art Gallery, Baker Center for the Arts, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown.
Elliott moved to the Lehigh Valley to teach at Muhlenberg in 1983 and was immediately attracted to the area’s industrial sites.
“Almost everything is an interior … There is something about taking pictures when I am inside, where I feel a lot more comfortable than I do outside. I feel that I can make a picture in many different ways to structure it formally in many different ways. The outside, I feel, is more limited,” says Elliott, a professor of art at Muhlenberg and an adjunct instructor in the University of Pennsylvania School of Design.
The work is divided into four groupings, starting with Elliott’s earliest work from the 1980s when he chronicled industrial sites with his 4 x 5 view camera. The atmospheric images are gelatin prints from black and white negatives. Most are utilitarian structures like cement mills, a coal washery and a New Jersey Zinc Co. hoist house. The stark landscapes are hauntingly devoid of humans.
For his Bethlehem Steel work, Elliott partnered on a documentation project with area historian Lance Metz. His view camera skillfully captured scenes inside the steel mills and blast furnaces during the industrial giant’s decline in the 1990s.
Columbia College Chicago Press published these photographs in “The Steel: Photographs of the Bethlehem Steel Plant, 1989-1996” by Joseph E. B. Elliott with essays by Betsy Fahlman and Lance Metz.
Funded by a grant, from 2002-2004, Elliott created electrifying black and white images for “Palazzos of Power: Central Stations of the Philadelphia Electric Company 1900-1930,” a book written by Aaron V. Wunsch, with foreword by David E. Nye.
Several of these gelatin prints, made from black and white negatives, are included in the exhibit. These feature sweeping vistas of empty turbine halls, pipe rooms, blower rooms and other areas of older majestic, cathedral-like power plants.
Several digital inkjet prints from the project Elliott’s working on now are on display. Working with Nathaniel Popkin and Peter Woodall, he has been exploring out-of-sight treasures in the City of Brotherly Love. These are expected to be published in “Finding the Hidden City: Place and Time in Philadelphia” by Temple University Press, Philadelphia.
Among these color images are back rooms of churches, like “Sacristy, Church of the Advocate, Diamond Street, 2015,” as well as an abandoned synagogue, shuttered hotel, deserted wood-turning company, and other intriguingly lonely sites.
Elliott states that his photographic work “resides at the nexus of documentation and art. Documentation implies a detached, non-judgmental process in which information is objectively recorded, analyzed, cataloged and communicated.
“For many, art implies sentiment, romance, interpretation. In my experience art and documentation are not mutually exclusive, lying instead along a continuum.”
Martin Art Gallery hours: noon - 8 p.m. Tuesday - Saturday. Information: 484-664-3467