The Forgotten Islands Surrounding New York City

Brooklyn-based photographer Phil Buehler has a few tips for visiting abandoned places: Enter through doors, not windows; “no trespassing” signs must be posted conspicuously to be valid; don’t carry things like spray paint; and if you get caught, come out looking sheepish and with your camera gear in hand. 

“I just explain that I’m trying to rescue history,” Buehler told Hyperallergic. “I’ve always gotten off. Except once.”

Buehler is the expert — he’s been photographing the desolate and derelict fringes of urbanscapes for the last 50 years. A new solo show at Front Room Gallery in Hudson, New York compiles his documentation of the forgotten islands surrounding New York City. On view May 25 through June 23, No Man Is an Island places film photos shot in 1974 in conversation with drone footage taken earlier this year. From Ellis Island’s view of the Twin Towers to the Staten Island Boat Graveyard to the million-person cemetery on Hart Island, Buehler’s compositions are still and sometimes eerie, devoid of people but rich with fantasies of lost stories, or stories never told.

Called “ruins porn” by some, photography of abandoned places is attractive in part because of the inherent difficulty of access to the subject. How did he get there? will be the first question for many. For those 1970s Ellis Island captures, Buehler credits his childhood friend’s canoe. When he was 17 years old, the two boys set out from the “teeming shore” with a camera borrowed from the Young Filmmakers Foundation, a cooperative on the Lower East Side. This month, the New York Times program Op-Docs is airing a digitized version of the 16mm documentary film they made about the island.

“Photographing abandoned places got tougher after 9/11,” Buehler said. “Between Google Street View and cell phones, it’s overwhelmingly popular. I think I was the first. There used to be a code among people I knew: Take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints. Now it’s like, ‘Don’t tell anybody where you’ve been.’”

There isn’t much wall text in No Man Is an Island to easily reveal Buehler’s secrets, but there are book-length stories behind every site. The show alternates between wide-angle panoramas and close-up details, like of the layers of a peeling painting found on North Brother Island. Half a mile from Rikers, the island was established as a tuberculosis sanatorium in 1943, repurposed as an adolescent drug treatment facility in the ’50s and ’60s, and is now a federally owned bird sanctuary. 

“The poetry is in the thread running through the pictures: migration, isolation, confrontation, rehabilitation, and attraction,” Buehler said. “Somehow, we’re all connected, can identify with these.” He organized his photos not by timeline or geography but based on how they fit into one of the sub-themes. The show’s title takes its name from the 17th-century John Donne poem that emphasizes a sense of belonging to the whole of humanity. These places that are melting and sinking into the sea are part of our story, too. We may never step foot ourselves, but Buehler has done the work necessary to remember their existence before there is no trace.

He even kept some meta evidence: the very canoe he took out in 1974 will be installed on the gallery floor, oars and all. “It’s probably covered with poison ivy or whatever, I gotta hack it out,” Buehler said. “You know, old stuff.”

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