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What’s left behind

It’s the questions that intrigue photographer Joe Wallace

Photographer Joe Wallace is interested in the remnants of an older time, what’s left behind after mills or factories close and buildings sit dormant. For about a year, two years ago, Wallace turned his camera away from the flashier world of sports and advertising to explore the mostly abandoned Strathmore Mill and Railroad Salvage buildings in Turners Falls.

His current show of large color photographs, up now at Greenfield Community College’s Downtown Center through the end of May, is a small sampling of that body of work.

Wallace has titled the show “Remnants” because of all of the old equipment, furniture and just flat-out trash that he encountered in the buildings. And though he focuses his camera meticulously on what is apparent, he’s just as interested in what’s not.

“The story is not necessarily what was done there in the industry and its purpose, but what’s left behind,” Wallace said. As he worked in the various rooms, Wallace found himself interested in the stories suggested by what he found in them. Pointing to the photograph he’s titled “Barbed Chair,” Wallace asks, “Why is this completely random pile of debris there?”

“And then, some of the images are just so ... I don’t know, there’s a stillness about them,” he continues. Wallace gestures toward “Green Door,” an image that affords the viewer a glimpse past a huge sliding green door into a side room where an odd, curved metal object perches in front of the grayed brick wall. It looks, at first, like a cupola, or other large architectural ornament. Wallace doesn’t know what the object is, which is part of what he loves about the photograph.

“And this almost looks like the shadow of a bomb blast or something,” Wallace said, indicating a shape on the wall behind the object. The shape mirrors that of the object but is not its shadow. Wallace points out that all of the shadows in the image are being thrown forward, not back.

It’s this attentiveness to detail that makes Wallace’s photographs so interesting to study. There’s generosity in Wallace’s precision, and a certain spaciousness created within it. Wallace isn’t trying to impose an interpretation on these scenes, or answer any questions they raise. He seems satisfied to present the questions.

Wallace grew up down the valley in Longmeadow, though he qualifies that by adding, “Well, California, Kentucky, North Carolina, Alabama, Longmeadow.” His parents had based the family in Longmeadow during Wallace’s middle and high school years and then, after he and his sister went off to college, relocated to Leyden.

It was on trips to Leyden from his current home base of Carlisle that Wallace discovered Turners Falls and the Strathmore Mill and Railroad Salvage buildings, which piqued his longtime interest in 19th century architecture. Wallace said of the Strathmore Mill, “I’ve always looked at the building and said, ‘Wow, that is an amazing place and I can’t believe that it’s empty.’ How sad is that? I mean, it’s right on the river; it’s a beautiful building. The views from inside are incredible; the light is incredible.”

What is known currently as the Strathmore Mill was originally built in 1874 to house the Keith Paper Co. Mills built at this time relied on water to power equipment and on large windows, often on both sides of the room, to supply natural lighting for workers. This last feature accounts for the beautiful light that Wallace made use of on nearly every floor aside from the basement, where he shot with battery-powered lights.

Over the years, the Strathmore Mill building has been used not only for manufacturing paper but other light manufacturing, artist studios, a sound studio and recycled paper storage. A 2007 plan to convert the building to a film school fell through and the town of Montague took ownership of the property in 2010.

The layering of eras and human endeavor that the building has experienced are evident in Wallace’s photographs. Wallace described the process of exploring and photographing the building as being, “Almost like an archaeology experiment.”

Different colors of paint show through on some walls; pieces of metal, broken boards, old equipment and furniture lie scattered across the floor or massed in haphazard piles. Or, as in “Couch,” one object — in this instance, a large sectional sofa still draped with a ruched cover — sits incongruously in the middle of the large industrial space, making the viewer wonder how it came to be there.

In “Toilet,” the title appliance sits exposed near the left edge of the frame, oddly comical. Shafts of light project a series of bright windows down the long, empty floor. There’s something almost triumphant about the shot, except for that toilet.

“You can see where they put the stalls in,” Wallace said, “and the other toilet was here.” He points to the lines on the floor that demarcate where the other stall’s walls would have been. “These buildings have been reused in so many different ways, there’s this layering of time periods.”

“Sink” has a darker, moodier feel. The rounded shape of the rusted sink collects light from the window, where a metal can sits on the sill, as if casually left by the last person to set it down, a person who might have assumed he was coming back tomorrow. The walls are coated with a fine, black mold that partially obscures a red, upward-pointing arrow.

“Again, the layering of detail,” Wallace said. “Like, the arrow, what’s that for? The can ... I don’t know what that is. And that sort of debris where the old drain has been pulled out ...”

“And the mold,” he adds, with emphasis. The photo was taken in the basement of a section of the building that had experienced a fire and had partially crumbled. “There’s all this sort of crazy black mold all over everything and it smells,” Wallace said.

He felt ill at times, working in the basement. And the building’s deteriorating condition presented other challenges. In order to steal time from his commercial work, Wallace ended up working on the Strathmore Mill series in the winter months.

“Sometimes we were walking on ice,” Wallace said, describing areas in the basement where water had leaked into the building and then frozen. There is no electricity, thus no lighting in the lower areas and no heat throughout. Temperatures were often well below freezing.

“The walls are 3 feet thick,” Wallace said. “If it warmed up to 35 degrees outside, it might still only be 15 degrees inside.”

He and his father, John Wallace, who served as his assistant, were often wearing what Wallace described as, “The equivalent of snowmobile suits.”

Wallace brought his father along not just to help carry gear or provide technical assistance but for safety.

“I was never in the building alone,” Wallace said. Though the Strathmore Mill, overall, appears stable, Wallace said that there are sections in which large equipment that had spanned multiple levels has been removed, leaving openings in the floors.

Before he began the project, Wallace set up a meeting to gain permission from Montague town administrator Frank Abbondanzio. He showed Abbondanzio some of his work, as well as the work of other photographers who have focused on 19th-century industrial architecture. Abbondanzio put Wallace in touch with Montague building inspector Dave Jensen, who gave him a tour of the building.

“He showed me where there are some parts that are a little perilous or that I needed to stay away from and he let me in and out every day to keep the building secure and also to make sure I didn’t hurt myself,” Wallace said.

Wallace said that young photographers who see his fine art photographs often ask, “‘How do I make it work?’ And the brutal truth is if I didn’t do commercial work, I couldn’t do the fine art work. Because the fine art work — and I don’t like to tell people this because it sounds discouraging — is basically a money pit. I spend money on the right kind of equipment and then the time to shoot it. And the way I like to print it and frame it, all of that costs money. I do it because I love it, not because I make any money.”

Wallace comes to photography through journalism. He began his studies at Boston University, doing a little photography but primarily studying to be a writer. “Storytelling is something I’ve always been really interested in,” Wallace said.

The realities of the job market meant that he spent 10 years in advertising before he returned to school at The International Center for Photography in New York City. In 2009, after working as a photographer in New York for many years, Wallace moved to Carlisle, where he runs his business from a home studio.

“I do a lot of sports and advertising, basically, to pay the rent,” Wallace said. His commercial clients have included well-known companies such as Sensodyne, Poligrip, Club Car and The Ritz Carlton. He shoots mostly portraits, which require simpler equipment than he used to shoot the Strathmore series.

For that, Wallace said that he used, “The digital equivalent of a 4x5 camera: a big architectural camera that had tilt-shift movements.” Tilt-shift movements are camera or lens adjustments that help to correct lens curvature and keep lines within an image straight. This is particularly important in architectural photography where a building’s walls could easily become distorted.

Because he was shooting with equipment that required such exacting and precise adjustments, taking the Strathmore photos was, “A slow, painstaking process,” Wallace said. “But obviously rewarding.”

“There’s enough detail in the images and the way they’re printed that I find myself looking at them over and over and over again and sort of imagining what was taking place there,” he said. “Imagining the story, making up my own story.”

Viewers will find that there’s plenty of room for their stories as well.

Joe Wallace’s exhibit will be up now through the end of May in Greenfield Community Center’s Downtown Center at 270 Main St., Greenfield. You can call the Downtown Center at 413-774-2285. See more of Joe Wallace’s work at joewallace.com.

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She has a studio in Greenfield. She can be reached at tcrapo@me.com.

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