“Dead Space” Exhibit Captures Living Decay

This article by Denise Lu appeared in NorthbyNorthwestern.com on January 9, 2012.

In the third most populated city in the country, photographer Noah Vaughn manages to capture a strange paradox of empty abandonment full of life in “Dead Space,” a collection of photographs of abandoned, destroyed or yet to be demolished buildings in Chicago. Vaughn, a graduate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is exhibiting the collection at Saki in Logan Square through the month of January.

Originally a painter, Vaughn started working with photography around 2005 after finding it more suitable for his needs. “I was working with landscapes and that was hard to do with a day job,” Vaughn says.

After a few years, Vaughn began taking pictures of abandoned buildings and landscapes in 2007. “I lived near 12th and Michigan. At the time, a lot of buildings were torn down,” he says. “A lot of them are random finds; I ride my bike around the city a lot. Sometimes there’s stuff in the paper and half of them will be abandoned.”

Yet, despite their appearance of emptiness, Vaughn’s photographs are thriving with life and color. Up close, the hues are extremely vivid, bright and rich with complexity, themselves a living subject in the midst of stripped walls and decaying wooden floors. “It’s pretty astonishing to look at,” says Adam Hirzel, manager of Saki. “The color on some of them is amazing, even the ones that are grey and dark colors.”

Photos of deserted classrooms seem somewhat fully intact with overturned desks and books in shelves, even with mugs lining the top. “A lot of places I’ll go into, I’ll think it’ll just sometimes be empty rooms,” Vaughn says. “But it’s very surprising what I’ll find.”

This unadulterated surprise translates to the audience as well, as Vaughn simply captures the objective scenery of the buildings. “A lot of what happens with photographing or making art about ruins is that it gets romanticized,” says blogger and artist Dmitry Samarov, a cab driver who has known Vaughn since their early days at SAIC. “One of the terms that’s been used is ‘ruin porn,’ when you’re making a fetish out of decay and destruction. Somehow, [Vaughn’s] been able to avoid that, at least in my view.”

At the gallery opening on Friday night, Vaughn’s snapshots of different Chicago sites lined the walls of Saki. Striking colors of heaps of clothes and shoes in an abandoned classroom are the spotlight of one shot, and angular layers of computer screens and wires piled on the floor are the focus of another. “I’m very interested in his pictures of the environment, what survives and what decays,” says Linton Childs, a spectator at the opening. Childs mentions having walked around demolished buildings in the south side of Chicago, where most of Vaughn’s snapshots are taken. “I’ve walked around the Michael Reese [Hospital] campus. It really has historic value and it was torn down for nothing.” Other spectators described the photographs as comparable to what seems like the aftermath of Chernobyl or the 2011 Japanese tsunami.

The visually stunning structure and chaos is enhanced in some snaps of domed buildings with intricate details and arresting architecture. “I have a fascination with abandoned spaces,” said Saki staff member Brook Stokes. “These are seemingly empty spaces, but the architecture is beautiful.” One particular photo captures a single beam of light filtering through the windows of a domed room, illuminating the structural feat of the building inside.

“I can’t speak for Noah, but in my mind, the title ‘Dead Space’ is kind of ironic,” Hirzel says. “They’re abandoned spaces, but they’re very much still alive if you take the opportunity to go explore them. The best thing that I think people can take from them is to see how alive these spaces still are.”

“Dead Space” is at Saki until January 31. Find more of Vaughn’s work at rubbishgoeshere.com, noahvaughn.com, and chicagoscreenshots.com.