The iconic Domino Sugar refinery graced the Williamsburg waterfront for decades, and when much of it was demolished in 2014, many felt that a quintessential part of the neighborhood had vanished. Paul Raphaelson, a photographer who specializes in urban and industrial landscapes, felt a similar sense of loss, and decided to capture the abandoned factory’s eerie beauty before it disappeared. However, what started out as a simple desire to photograph the building’s cavernous spaces became an in-depth exploration into the human and historical context that surrounded them. The endeavor would eventually result in a crowdfunded book as well as a set of photos currently on display at The Front Room gallery, not far from the site of the refinery.
“I was always working with pictures of empty industrial spaces, but I wasn’t specifically thinking about Domino until I heard it was being knocked down,” he said. In 2013, after insistently asking the property owners for permission to enter the factory and take photos, Raphaelson was granted access for one day, after which he was hooked. “It defied my expectations,” he said. “It was more interesting and remarkable inside than I thought. I did some good work, and I wanted to do more.”
While putting together a proposal for a more extensive project on the refinery, Raphaelson decided that he wanted to create a project that placed his images within the factory’s greater cultural and historical context.
“Originally, it was interesting to me because it was this iconic Brooklyn thing that was so visually compelling because of its size and its complexity,” he said. “But as I was researching it and learning more about what I was looking at, I got a sense of the historical side and that led me to the human stories behind it.”
Raphaelson wanted to address the sometimes de-contextualized nature that defines the usual “ruin porn” of abandoned buildings, and ensure that his images stayed grounded in the factory’s history. “Instead of being ripped out of a historical context, I wanted to put [the photos] back in the historical context and the human context,” he said.
To that end, Raphaelson spoke to about ten former workers, who he managed to track down via the Domino Sugar Refinery Facebook group, where many former employees still keep in touch. “After talking to people for many hours, I’d get a couple of short anecdotes that were personal and fun and illuminated the experience of being there,” Raphaelson said. He added that many workers expressed their appreciation for the factory through a “sense of ownership over their jobs and the machines they worked with.”
One story was particularly memorable: “One guy worked for years on a machine that produced sugar cubes, and he intuitively knew what was wrong with it whenever it stopped working,” he said. “Most of the foremen and supervisors respected [the workers], but occasionally there would be a foreman who would try to micromanage everything, and the workers would use their intimate knowledge of the machines to sabotage them,” he said with a laugh. When the presumptuous foreman would attempt to fix the machine and invariably fail, the workers would play dumb until the supervisor removed the meddling foreman. “The minute the guy was out of the room, the machine would be fixed in two minutes and was up and running again.”
According to Raphaelson, the workers also praised the diversity and sense of community that was fostered among the factory employees. For him, all these personalized stories give his vast photos a sense of grounding and meaning.
While Raphaelson is still searching for a publisher for Sweet Ruin: The Brooklyn Domino Sugar Refinery and working on final edits, three of his photos can be viewed at The Front Room gallery in Williamsburg as part of a group exhibition titled, aptly enough, “Beyond Ruin Porn.”
“Beyond Ruin Porn” at The Front Room, through Feb. 21, Fri-Sun from 1pm-6pm, 147 Roebling St., bet. Hope St. and Metropolitan Ave., Williamsburg.