Baltimore Block by Block: An interview with photographer James Singewald
James Singewald is a photographer’s photographer: he is nostalgic and knowledgeable, precise and caring with his technique. He keeps it analog—all day every day. Primarily using a 4x5 view camera with Fujichrome Velvia slide film he scans the film and prints digitally. The large format film is key in Singewald’s architecture work in order to capture vast detail and correct perspective.
From Philadelphia to Baltimore, James Singewald’s photographs of decaying urban landscapes and architecture is not just documentation of the old city environments. It allows the viewer to be intrigued just as much as the photographer himself. American cities are gentrifying for better or worse. Singewald’s photography exposes the neighborhoods and structures which in time will be transformed, leaving us with a curiosity for change and a fascination with the power of photography.
For the past eight years, James has been living and working in Baltimore, Maryland studying the city’s history and the decay we see today, while also exploring how it can be rejuvenated. Upon moving to “B’more” James was focused on the failed urban renewal project in East Baltimore known as the Old Town Mall, a now desolate two block pedestrian mall. He began by documenting each of the buildings on the mall and what was left of the neighborhood after decades of decline. A collaboration of photography and research informed Singewald of Old Town’s past leading him to seek out lifelong residents and business owners. Their memories of the neighborhood and their hopes of the future provided additional motivation to Singwald’s work culminating in his first published book titled, Old Town, East Baltimore.
In his own words Singewald says, “There are a lot of changes happening in Baltimore and in each of the neighborhoods I’ve been photographing. My goal is to leave you not only with a sense of the condition of our city, but also a feeling of urgency to see that it is improved and preserved and that the rich history behind the architecture and the community is not lost, but rather embraced.”
The progression of Singwald’s work has opened new chapters each step in it’s evolution. For the past six years, Singewald has been working on a larger version of the Old Town project. The current project is Baltimore: A History, Block by Block. Ten main streets have been documented with the support of two successful kickstarters and a few grants. Building by building, block by block, the saturated colors from the slide film gives the viewer a glimpse of what the dilapidated structures once were and what they can become.
I was fortunate enough to get a hold of James Singewald and ask him further questions about his photography. —Larry J. Napolitano Jr
Larry J Napolitano: You have dedicated lots of time to your craft and Baltimore. What is the long-term goal?
James Singewald: So far I’ve documented approximately 100+ city blocks (including Old Town Mall) with over 500 images. I currently have enough film for one more shoot and then I’m out of film and funding for now. It’s a good breaking point for me to pause on the photography leg of the project and to turn my focus to the research and presentation of this large body of work. The long-term goal, with proper funding, is to publish a series of books along with several exhibitions, preferably in the neighborhoods I’ve been photographing. I also want to create a comprehensive, interactive website where I can present all of the photographs and research and make it accessible to the public so they can add stories or commentary about a building, street, or neighborhood.
I know you began by photographing the different neighborhoods back in Philly. What inspired you to originally start and continue your projects? Why are you intrigued? What are you looking for?
My work from Philly was more about exploration and photographing abandoned places and spaces around the city. Growing up in Providence, RI you just didn’t see the scale of urban decay that exists in larger cities like Philadelphia. When I moved to Philly in 1998 to attend the University of the Arts, I was really drawn to the gritty city landscape and architecture. Fast forward ten years, I hadn’t really been photographing as much after college, but wanted to get back to my art. I decided to go back to school for my MFA and ended moving to Baltimore in 2008 to attend Maryland Institute College of Art. The work I did in Philly was the base for something larger. I didn’t want to become known as a “ruin porn” photographer, a term I really don’t like. I didn’t want to continue to just photograph vacant buildings and urban decay just to photograph it. I decided I needed to put something more behind the photographs and that’s what led me to the Old Town project I created for my master thesis and eventually to the Bmore Block by Block project I’m currently working on. It“s important to document these places, but it’s even more important to understand why many of our cities have declined. I studied a lot of urban history, which really answered so many questions I had about American cities and how they were formed and how they’ve changed over the past century. It makes the work I do more complete.
Once you conquer Baltimore photographically, will you relocate and start in another city or town?
Ha! A very good question! I’m nowhere near completing this huge project, but I am making progress. I definitely want to pull it all together in the next year or two. I’m not sure what happens after that. I recently took an extended vacation to California and spent a couple weeks in Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. I shot a ton of 120 film out there which I enjoyed. It was refreshing to shoot similar but different subject matter. I really loved Oakland and could see myself going out there and shooting a smaller Oakland Block by Block project. That town is changing and gentrifying at a rapid rate. Many cities are in fact, so I think this idea of archiving what’s left of the old architecture and neighborhoods before it turns over is important and worthwhile. Part of me also wants to go back to Philly and reshoot places I photographed 15 years ago to show the change. We’ll see where I end up...
You are currently part of an exhibit at the Maryland Historical Society. Can you tell me a little about that?
The exhibit I’m part of at the Maryland Historical Society is a collection of featured recent acquisitions to the Society’s various collections. There is a slideshow of images from a few photographers from the Preserve the Baltimore Uprising 2015 Archive and a few of my images from the day after the April 2015 Uprising that happened in response to the death of Freddy Gray while in police custody.
Preserve the Baltimore Uprising is a digital repository that seeks to preserve and make accessible original content that was captured and created by individual community members, grassroots organizations, and witnesses to the protests that followed the death of Freddie Gray on April 19, 2015. Preserve the Baltimore Uprising is a collaborative project of the Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore-area university faculty members, museums , and community organizations. (baltimoreuprising2015.org).
Be sure to view more of James Singewald’s current and future projects at his website.