My photographs, first and foremost, are about beauty. In structures that most people agree are ugly, I see the opposite: surfaces rich in texture and patterns, bold forms molded by light. The translation of these objective facts into the seductive black and white tones of the photographic process is both the challenge and the excitement of creating these images. – David Ottenstein
Ottenstein was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but grew up in State College, a small town situated in central Pennsylvania. At the age of 14, he took his first photograph, which led him to pursue a degree in American Studies with a concentration in Photography from Yale University in 1982. Ottenstein lives in New Haven, Connecticut, where he has a successful commercial photography studio. His interest in fine art photography was sparked in 1998, when the architect Richard Turlington asked him to photograph the decaying Hyperion Theater in downtown New Haven. After this experience, he started to look for other abandoned buildings such as the Harmony Mill and the Mechanic Hydro industrial plant.
Ottenstein uses light to set the mood for his visually alluring photographs as well as a large format film camera which produces four-by-five inch negatives that he scans and enhances to receive the desired effects.
Lorenzo Webber House #1, part of a series of abandoned New England buildings, compels the viewer to contemplate its silent and disturbing nature. One wonders why the house has been abandoned and why there is only a chandelier, a rug and a couch wrapped up in plastic foil left. Have these objects been abandoned as well, or will they be retrieved?
When Ottenstein read a New York Times article in 2004 on the decline of American agriculture, he decided to travel to Iowa and document these changes. He encountered a similar situation to his series on abandoned buildings in the Northeast. Since it was too difficult for small family farms to compete with agricultural corporations, the small farms were driven out of business. The families abandoned their farms, houses, silos and barns and nature subsequently took over. As a result, the classic image of the Midwest as seen in the paintings of Grant Wood (1891-1942) is rapidly disappearing.
When first looking at Abandoned House, 510th Ave, one can sense the vastness of the sky and the endless landscape. They seem to be so vast that the frame of the photograph cannot confine them and they continue beyond.
Judy Birke, a writer and art consultant, explains that Ottenstein’s images become “an affecting reflection of the silence and lifelessness that accompanies the abandonment of life from a place of living.”
Have you seen the New Britain Museum of American Art’s most recent acquisitions in the Intro Gallery? What did you think of them? Can you think of any other artists, photographers or others, that document similar subject matter? Why do you think it is important to document decaying buildings andabandoned farms?