Wednesday, April 6, 2016

7 Questions with Matthew Christopher, Author and Preservationist

Matthew Christopher has had an interest in abandoned sites since he was a child, but started documenting them a decade ago while researching the decline of the state hospital system. His new book, "Abandoned America: The Age of Consequences" (JonGlez Publishing), is now available worldwide through major booksellers. His photography has been featured in numerous publications and broadcasts. He has lectured on the art of ruins, abandoned spaces, preservation, and mental health history for Preservation Austin, the Pennsylvania State Museum, Preservation Pennsylvania, Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, and many others, and his work has been displayed in galleries across the US. His website has gained international attention and is considered one of the leading collections of images of abandoned spaces.

How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
I've always had an interest in history, but it was the history of the asylums and mental health care that really spurred my interest in photography. I worked in an inpatient psychiatric facility and started reading about how care had evolved over the years; it's one of the more fascinating aspects of American culture. There was an abandoned asylum in Philadelphia, Philadelphia State Hospital, that kept coming up and I decided to go visit it. After that, I was hooked, and my interest in photography came about as part of my desire to share what makes these places so unique and special.

Masonic Temple, Cleveland

What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
Obviously ruins are interesting on a superficial aesthetic level, but learning about how they fit into our culture and the lives of people who passed through them adds another layer of meaning and in my opinion makes them much more significant. I really enjoy learning about what makes each place interesting and finding the stories that make them come alive again.

Abandoned Asylum
 How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?
My website, Abandoned America, has chronicled American ruins over the last ten years. My first book, "Abandoned America: The Age of Consequences" came out last year, and the follow up, "Abandoned America: Dismantling the Dream", will be released sometime this fall. Each book is not only a collection of photographs, but a journey through the histories of these sites and personal reflections on what they've become. 

Why is studying/knowing history important?
I suppose history is important for the same reason memory itself is: without it, you're sort of floating through the present without any context with which to interpret it. It also is the way we save those who came before us from passing into oblivion, much as we hope that those who come after us will remember us and that our lives will not be erased forever. History may not make us immortal, but it hopefully keeps us from being forgotten.

What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
It shifts. For quite a while I was interested in the history of asylums and state hospitals. I still am, but the fun thing about what I do is that it allows me to explore many different facets of our past. I think if I had to concentrate in one area, the prison system might be what I'd look at next. I think the darker areas of our identity, and how we have chosen to deal with difficult social issues, reveal the most about who we really are.

What is Abandoned America?
Abandoned America is my collection of photographs from over 10 years of exploring abandoned spaces across the American countryside: factories, schools, hospitals, churches, prisons, asylums and institutions - any site I can find and gain access to, really. It's an effort to not only remember the histories of these sites, but to preserve something of this present moment as well, when we are losing so many significant parts of our past to redevelopment, blight, and neglect.

Abandoned Children's Development Center
 What do the sites you photograph have to tell us about American history?
The sites I've visited each represent unique aspects of our past. I've photographed what was once the largest mall in America, the boneyard where all military aircraft are retired, the hospital where tuberculosis was effectively cured, a derelict ocean liner that is larger than the Titanic, enormous steel foundries and auto manufacturing plants, the laboratories where cellular, satellite, and laser technologies were developed, brownfield and Superfund sites where companies have devastated the surrounding environment, and massive coal breakers. The collection includes what was at the time the most expensive public school in the US, palatial theaters which I doubt we will ever build anything comparable to again, and power plants whose turbine halls are so large they're mind-boggling. There's a bit of everything, really, and that is what makes it so fun and interesting to explore.

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