Brian Rose – Atlantic City
Photographer: Brian Rose, born in Virginia, and resides New York City, NY
Publisher: CIRCA press/ACC Distribution, UK copyright 2019
Introduction Essay: Paul Goldberger
Hardcover book, sewn binding, four-color lithography, printed in Italy
Photobook designer: Jean-Michel Dentand
Review by Melanie Chapman
As a college student in the early 1980s, I had my first opportunity to visit the beachfront area of Atlantic City, the coastal town in New Jersey that inspired the board game MONOPOLY. Being from California, I was familiar with West Coast beach scenes that included palm trees and attractive people in bathing suits on roller skates. Thus I found Atlantic City to be somewhat exotic, with large buildings situated right next to the boardwalk, and average looking people in street clothes milling around, clearly there for something other than “fun in the sun”. I did not understand the comments my friend from New York made when we wandered into a fairly lifeless casino. His exact words escape me now, but essentially he had nothing good to say about the casino or its owner, Donald Trump. At the time I had no idea who Donald Trump was…oh how I long for those days of innocence.
Published in March of 2019, Brian Rose’s new book of large format color photographs Atlantic City may not have necessarily anticipated the timing of the recent New York Times article documenting a decade’s worth of investment losses (over One Billion Dollars, more than any other individual in the country) incurred by Donald Trump. But Rose clearly had an understanding of the effect of those losses when he packed up his gear following the 2016 Presidential election and drove to Atlantic City to document what he saw.
Atlantic City provides a haunting illustration of the effect those losses have wrought on one particular community, offering a foreboding illustration of what may prove to be a national trend.
Working in the large format tradition of architectural photographers Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky, Brian Rose shows us a city whose glory days are well in the past. It is a beach city nearly devoid of people, as if a nuclear bomb had been dropped and all that remained were the cockroaches and empty buildings. In the case of Atlantic City, the bomb that was dropped was a plague of vulture capitalism, the buildings are gaudy casinos meant for large crowds that never materialized or certainly did not linger. Whether the cockroaches are represented by the legion of stray cats that cruise the empty boardwalk or the politicians who circle the Oval Office is perhaps a matter of debate. But not really. Atlantic City makes it pretty clear they are one and the same.
Prominently featured in Rose’s images is the failed attempt to dress up a pig and call it exotica, aka the casino Trump Taj Mahal. Fake gold minarets adorn blinding white exteriors, now decorated with No Trespassing signs. Streets are without signs of life, parking lots remain empty, older structures built in a more vital era are viewed from across abandoned lots, billboards displaying open mouthed women ready to party tempt no one but the desolate sand dunes that seem poised to creep inside yet another empty casino.
In addition to Rose’s keen eye for composition and color, what makes Atlantic City such an effective body of work is the inclusion of quotes from newspaper and magazine articles related to the rise and fall of Atlantic City, as well as individuals directly affected by the decimation of the community. These chilling quotes are contrasted with tweets from the Donald himself. For example, on the page opposite a photograph of the sprawling and empty entrance to the Taj Mahal “Resort” is a quote from Valerie McMorris deriding that the “opulence and glamour were all just bait…majestic surroundings financed through junk bonds…profits not reinvested in the building or the employees” but rather shipped back to Wall Street “and into the coffers of billionaire hedge fund owners.” On the same page is a 2016 tweet from @therealDonaldTrump declaring “I made a lot of money in Atlantic City and left 7 years ago, great timing (as all know). Polls made big mistakes, now many bankruptcies.”
Other quotes from residents that speak of boarded up single family homes and equally shuttered casinos and sparse boardwalks serve as chilling context to Rose’s photograph on the accompanying page. Another photograph of an old stone church next to an abandoned fire station would stand on its own as a tragic image of a dying city, but with the inclusion of text detailing the expulsion of African Americans into a North-side ghetto makes the empty lot and desolation of Rose’s image feel sickening and thoroughly intentional. On the following page, another wide shot of lonely older structures surrounded by open fields accompanied by a Washington Post quote of Donald Trump telling a 1992 business luncheon of city officials that “they needed to clean up its act” and should not direct money to “unneeded low-income housing” but rather should “beautify the entrance to the city so it won’t look like you’re coming into a slum” is particularly effective. So too is the photograph of a tall parking structure devoid of cars, paired with the 1999 Associated Press quote listing the number of suicides from that same structure, three in 8 days.
For those not familiar with Rose’s prior work, he is a Cooper Union trained photographer that has consistently avoided politics in his urban/social landscape images. Yet after spending time seeing Atlantic City through his eyes, one can understand the departure. In the same way that Thomas Struth’s inclusion of pink in his photographs of South Korea have resonance to those familiar with the politics of the era in which imposing buildings crowded out community and led to isolation and suicides, so too will viewers of Atlantic City who are informed about the maneuvers of late 20th Century capitalism and opportunistic developers such as Donald Trump find much to confirm their worst fears.
Usually I like to sign off a review with a hearty “Enjoy!” In the case of Atlantic City, instead I say Print out the news reports of Trump’s massive business losses and read along while you view Brian Rose’s fine work. The images speak for themselves, and in so doing, they speak volumes. You may not “Enjoy”, but you should absolutely “Pay Attention”.