John Bartelstone – The Brooklyn Navy Yard

Copyright John Bartelstone 2009 courtesy powerHouse Books

The area known as The Brooklyn Navy Yard is a massive 300 acres located on the waterfront adjacent to New York City. The U.S. Navy acquired the first property in 1801, constructing the first dry dock in 1851 and eventually decommissioning the site in 1966. This property was subsequently acquired by New York City for commercial redevelopment. During the 150 years of U.S. Naval operation, the working population swelled to 70,000 during the height of World War II in the 1940’s. In the 1950’s, the construction of many of the Navy’s aircraft super-carriers was completed here. The Brooklyn Navy Yard has a storied history and is associated with the construction, commissioning and repair of a vast number of the Navy’s ships, which subsequently sailed on to military duty and eventual history. Although the site is actively involved in a rebirth of commercial activity, it was the historical Navy infrastructure that became the subject of John Bartelstone’s The Brooklyn Navy Yard.

This is the place where Bartelstone is investigating and where much of the antiquated equipment, facilities, structures and infrastructure appears idle, rusting, corroding, and falling down from lack of care and maintenance. Nevertheless, there is still a vibrant private ship repair business that has found a way to maintain and keep the dry docks operational in spite of their seeming obsolescence.

While prowling the Brooklyn Navy Yard over a number of years, Bartelstone was capturing images of impermanence, change, and memory, as symbolized by the decaying and deteriorating infrastructure of the this expansive location. During the process of completing this project, Bartelstone states that he witnessed the continued destruction or removal of equipment and structures. These photographs become documents of ghosts, some seemly visible, while others are gone with only the slightest spirit still remaining.

The photographs are haunting and filled with old memories, a bittersweet narrative about a place whose time has come and gone by. From the appearances of the large and outdated industrial equipment and facilities, it appears that at some point in the early 1960’s the facility was deemed to be too antiquated, difficult to maintain with obsolete equipment and inability to find repair components. More than likely the size of the dry docks were inadequate to handle the larger military vessels or the infrastructure too dated for the more sophisticated electronics that required support. The entire site became obsolete and appears to be abandoned in place, but not necessarily frozen in time, as nature relentless reclaims it’s own. The shell of these structures would seem to stand the test of time, but show evidence of withering in the sun, rain, snow and ice. In the abandoned operational offices and former living quarters, the decaying structures appear similar to the abandoned farms in the Western prairies documented by Eugene Richards in his photo book The Blue Room.

This site also seems to be a shout out about industrial design, where form follows function. Equipment was placed precisely for its intended use, the piping and electrical connections are efficiently routed and in the process, provide very clean and esthetic lines. Everything about the BNY facilities, equipment and infrastructure are overwhelming in scale, dwarfing the individuals who work here. A relative sense of size and scale is provided by the photograph below, where one of the dry docks seems to easily handle two freighter ships and the individuals working on the ground are dwarfed by the vessel’s hulls. When the workers are placed into a contextual scale to the vessels that they are working on, they appear to look like small insects crawling about the place, up and over the varied surfaces.

Investigating this site with a large format camera in a black and white medium using a documentary style, I sense that Bartelstone’s photographs are somewhere in a gray area between modern aesthetics and contemporary realism. The composition, lighting, framing, balance and full range tonalities of Bartelstone’s photographs have their roots in an earlier modern period, but yet these straight forward photographs appear objective without having a judgmental or romantic sentimentality.

The photobook has a classical design with each interior photograph framed with a narrow white margin, one photograph per page. The nice printing of this photobook really showcases these aesthetically composed photographs.

By Douglas Stockdale

4 thoughts on “John Bartelstone – The Brooklyn Navy Yard

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  1. As a UK Architectural Student in 1983, I met John Bartelstone who gave me a whirlwind architectural tour of New York ( all in a day )it was exhilarating and his knowledge has always left an impression on my – he gave me 1/2 dozen B&W prints of the naval yard back then and I still cherish them, for the stark quality of Industrial Heritage which he managed to capture – I could tell then he was talented so I’m sure the book will reflect this – I must get a copy! – Paul McGarvey RIBA ( Architect in N. Ireland )

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