Ben Marcin Photographs Remnants of Things Past

A local photographer’s portraits of isolated row houses are garnering international attention.
By Ron Cassie. Portraits by Mike Morgan. Last House Standing Images courtesy of Ben Marcin - March 2014

Ben Marcin Photographs Remnants of Things Past

A local photographer’s portraits of isolated row houses are garnering international attention.
By Ron Cassie. Portraits by Mike Morgan. Last House Standing Images courtesy of Ben Marcin - March 2014

A decade and a half ago, photographer Ben Marcin hiked—not hitchhiked—from Baltimore to Philadelphia, traversing as many remote farms and wooded areas as possible along the way. He estimates he’s completed more than 5,600 hikes, two each weekend, one mid-week, give or take, for the past 40 years, mostly in the counties surrounding Baltimore. But his meanderings also include far-flung places like Guatemala’s Mayan highlands, rural Mexico, India, and Montenegro. His first pilgrimage, at four years old, began at the kitchen door of his family’s house in the small German town where he was born. “I crossed over the railroad tracks, cut through a cornfield, went through some woods, and walked into town where I asked a traffic cop at an intersection to get my Dad,” he recalls with a laugh. “I was out of gas and wasn’t sure how to get home.”

Since earning an economics degree from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, he’s held down a job at the Social Security Administration for the past three decades, but he’s always had this other side, the solo expeditioner part, that is also linked to an artistic impulse.

He tried watercolor painting initially—“Looks easy but it’s not,” he says—and didn’t buy his first camera until he was 27. Like many people, the first photos he took tended to be travel pictures from exotic destinations. Later, self-taught, he began playing with color and infrared images and eventually had three shows at Hampden’s Gomez Gallery, which closed in 2003.

He’s now 55, and although his hair has grayed, he remains as fit, restless, and curious as ever. Over the years, however, his photography has turned closer to home, more inward, “to stories,” as he puts it. Begun in 2010, his series, Last House Standing—large-scale portraits of literally the last row house standing on different city blocks, often no more than two miles from his own Bolton Hill row home—is garnering the first international attention of his career, with reviews from the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, and China, not to mention cultural observers like The Paris Review, Slate, and Wired. The stark, unsentimental photos manage to reveal both the decay and ghostly beauty of some of Baltimore’s iconic row houses and their fading environs.

“Monuments,” Marcin calls the withered, three-story, last turn-of-the-century row houses, “to dead neighborhoods.”

“The irony isn’t lost on me,” he adds. “All the traveling I’ve done, and, in the end, what I find most compelling has been right here all along.”

In many ways, Marcin’s Last House Standing photographs are more remarkable for what they leave out than for what they show. There are no cars out in front of the homes in the barren streets and, except for the odd air-conditioning unit or bed sheet in an upstairs window, few signs of life, if any, can be seen in the pictures. Some of the homes clearly appear to be vacant, boarded up at least, but not all.

There are no leaves on the trees nearby, no clouds or sunshine in the backdrop, just overcast, dull skies in nearly every photograph. There is rarely even a street sign or lamppost in the frame, and there are no people. But the most obvious things missing are the neighboring homes—leaving the jarring juxtaposition of a house that is 15 feet wide and 40 feet tall standing by itself in an empty lot. “No engineer or architect would design a structure like that,” says Marcin, who moved to the U.S. when he was 10. “They were meant to be attached to something else.”

Inevitably, viewers begin to consider the ages of these homes and the lives of those who once inhabited these odd, solitary structures, suddenly alone in the middle of once-thriving residential blocks. “A hundred people, generations of families, likely lived in these houses over the course of their lives, especially as they were divided into apartments,” says Marcin, staring at a towering Mosher Street row house with an outline of brick remnants from its former next-door neighbor still affixed to an exterior wall. Outside another, similar but still-inhabited home, a different question arises for Marcin during a recent shooting trip: “What is it about the person who still lives here, the last person on their block, that made them defiant enough to stay when everyone else left?”

Austere and self-possessed, the pictures are also sobering images of urban disintegration.

“Certainly, the photographs are social and political statements, particularly for what has and is happening in Baltimore,” says Constantine Grimaldis, who in 1977 opened the prominent North Charles Street gallery which bears his name and hosted a Last House Standing exhibition earlier this year. “They are also very good photographs, very good art, and the composition goes to that. He’s interested in all of that [the fine art aspects], but he’s also intensely interested in life, and that comes through in his work.”

Grimaldis adds that photos like Marcin’s may look deceptively simple at a glance, “but like all art,” he says, “it doesn’t just happen in front of you.

“It takes time to do the work and, at the same time, derive the meaning from it during the process,” Grimaldis says. “In Ben’s case, it also took time to find these places.”

Marcin, not surprisingly, stumbled across his first “last house standing” in 2010, during a lunchtime bike trek from Social Security Administration headquarters in Woodlawn back into the city. As always, compelled to explore the unfamiliar, he found himself in some of the struggling neighborhoods of West Baltimore. (While acknowledging the need to take safety precautions during his shooting trips, he jokes that he’s more afraid that his wife, Lynn, whom he met when she was the curator at the Gomez Gallery, will at some point organize an intervention and put a stop to his wanderings. He’s never had any problems during his current project, but over the years has had warning shots fired over his head by farmers and was once robbed in Mexico by a police officer.)

“You can ride through Sandtown-Winchester, Poppleton, Harlem Park, for miles, and so much of it is desolate,” he says, noting the city’s estimated 16,000 vacant houses and plans to demolish dozens of “last houses standing” via eminent domain over the next few years. “Boarded-up block after boarded-up block—and you see very few people.

“The first house that stopped me in my tracks,” he continues, “was three stories, painted light blue, boarded windows painted white for some reason. It looked like a face staring at me with six eyes.” Marcin says he knew the house would make a great photo by itself, but then came across another three-story row house standing alone farther down the same street. That was the beginning.

First and foremost, Marcin’s concentration has been centered on “taking good pictures.” He settled on creating a typology—a series—that highlighted the unique architecture and haunting grace of the brick buildings. “These homes were meant to last hundreds of years,” he says. “They have these ornate cornices, but now also years of wear and tear and peeling paint. It’s as if their skin is old and wrinkled, but if you look, you can still see the youthful beauty that was there at one time.”

And although he views his work through a personal, storytelling lens—“I’m not a political activist, I don’t go to meetings”—he’s fully aware that his photographs also evoke themes of urban poverty, decay, and dislocation. The context, distance, and objectivity of the pictures create space for interpretation on different levels, opening discussions about population loss and blight, inevitable among the first reactions for Baltimoreans who recognize their city in the pictures.

“We live in times where we all see what’s happening all over the world, traveling through the Internet, experiencing everything that’s uploaded on YouTube,” says Doreen Bolger, director of The Baltimore Museum of Art, who describes herself as a fan of Marcin’s work, including a previous series on homeless encampments. “At the same time we have this global perspective, there is something very powerful about the local. It’s so important to understand the richness and the history of the different places in the city in which we live.”

As his Last House Standing project continues, it’s evolving. Some of the first houses Marcin photographed have subsequently been knocked down, and he’s returning to those blocks, documenting the erasure of the last row house on the street, preparing to create before-and-after diptychs.

“What I’ve been interested in all along is not ‘ruin porn,’” Marcin says, referring to a term sometimes used to describe overtly exploitative photography from Rust Belt locales such as Detroit, MI, or Braddock, PA, outside Pittsburgh, “but capturing the memories and transition these houses represent. In that sense, taking a picture of what it looks like after it’s gone is a pretty obvious thing to do next.”

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