James Singewald attempts to document history through Baltimore's abandoned buildings

Sitting on the couch in his Franklin Square apartment, James Singewald is surrounded by pictures of decaying buildings. Boarded-up rowhomes with facades that haven't been tended to. Old storefronts with signs for businesses that have long since disappeared.

They're portraits Singewald has taken over the years, in Philadelphia and Baltimore, documentation of the still-present scars of more than four decades of a shifting urban landscape.

Singewald, 32, is in the early stages of a project to photograph more of these buildings in Baltimore, as well as buildings that have been rehabilitated or have remained relatively well cared for.

With camera in tow, he plans on methodically working his way through large swaths of 10 Baltimore streets, shooting portraits of each building along the way as part of a project called Baltimore: A History, Block by Block.

The project initially concentrated on parts of the west side of downtown, a place that seems poised for the greatest change.

"I sort of picked that spot first because it's downtown and they've been talking about redeveloping it forever and it seems to be getting closer to that," he says. "I feel like it's the area that's going to change sooner. Which is sort of the idea behind the project, to document what's here now, because the city is on that cusp of getting fixed up and redeveloped."

After shooting chunks of Howard Street, Eutaw Street, Fayette Street, Lexington Street, Park Avenue, and West Baltimore Street, the list grew to tentatively include Fayette, Baltimore, and Monument streets; Pennsylvania, Greenmount, and North avenues; and Broadway.

Block by Block's meticulous nature and exacting procedure give the project the feel of historical documentary. But the pictures themselves tell a story, one beyond "this is what once was."

Singewald's portraits are bright and crisp, with finer architectural features leaping off the page. Buildings that haven't been occupied in years, seemingly beyond repair, burst with strong incandescent hues.

"I always like to say it sort of brings the buildings back a little bit, makes them pop a little more, and you sort of get a glimpse of what it was and what it could be," he says.

But the window for capturing that distinctive look is pretty limited. Their rich colors are partially due to the 4-by-5-inch Fuji Chrome Slide Film he uses, but they're also the result of careful planning. It's best to go out on Sundays, Singewald says-there are fewer people and cars on the streets-when the sun is shining directly on buildings on the north side of an east-west thoroughfare. For the south side, where it is much harder to get direct light, it is easier to go out on overcast days to avoid shooting into the sun.

The photos must be shot in winter, fall, or early spring so the leaves on trees aren't blocking the view and the sky isn't as hazy. Taller buildings occasionally require access to a parking garage or the roof of a building across the street in order to capture the whole facade.

For buildings under four stories, Singewald says he'll spend two or three hours photographing two and a half blocks of one side of the street, two shots per building in most cases. He estimates he has taken 100-150 pictures for Block by Block. Given the crumbling, beleaguered state of many of the buildings on these streets, the knee-jerk reaction may be to classify these pictures as so-called "ruin porn," a style of photography that fetishizes the precious ruins of once-ornate structures in withering cities.

While Singewald concedes some of his earlier work-including several pictures of an old naval hospital in Philadelphia that still hang on his wall-may have some characteristics of that style, he says he came to Baltimore to get his master's in photographic and electronic media at the Maryland Institute College of Art because he didn't want to be someone who just photographs the ghetto. With time, the stories behind the buildings became imperative.

For his master's thesis, Singewald wanted to focus on a particular area and decided to photograph the desolate Gay Street commercial district of Old Town Mall. Taking classes in urbanism, he made it a point to research the history of many of the stores and the public-policy changes that brought the shopping center to its knees.

"I wanted to do something specific and I wanted to put something behind the pictures and say, 'Yes, this is an empty building, but it used to be this. It could be this. This is what happened, and why did it happen?'" he says. "It gives it a little more substance, I think, if you know the history behind the place and you're not just, 'Ah, it's a crazy-looking building.'"

Now, as a part-time employee in the imaging services department of the Maryland Historical Society, he has access to one of the best records of the places he shoots at his fingertips. And the time spent digging through records and looking through old photos has gone beyond work and into the realm of personal hobby. His shelves are filled with books about the city's history, and he is able to rattle off the names of long-gone buildings and the dates they were razed.

After pulling out several of the finished chrome slides and displaying the finished products on a light box, Singewald directs his attention a large print of an overhead picture of downtown Baltimore from 1957. It faces southeast, out toward the Chesapeake Bay.

He points to high-rise housing projects torn down years ago. He laments all that was razed for the construction of Charles Center. In the lower right-hand corner, he marvels at the unique roofing style of rowhomes northeast of downtown.

"All that shit's gone now," he says of the buildings, which fell prey to the construction of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

The history in some of the places he shoots is also more personal. Though Singewald grew up in Providence, R.I., and didn't spend much time in Baltimore before graduate school, he has family ties that date back several generations. His great-great-grandfather owned a hat business, which started on South Broadway near the water in Fells Point, and branched out to Baltimore Street on the west side, not far from Singewald's current apartment. His master's thesis was inspired, in part, by a cigar shop a different great-great-grandfather owned at Old Town Mall in the early 20th century.

Having run through the $5,000 raised by a Kickstarter campaign in 2011 and a $3,000 grant given by the Maryland State Arts Council in 2012, Singewald admits he has his work cut out for him. Photographing, researching, writing, and then self-publishing his thesis took him two years. Though Singewald has a Tumblr site where he uploads his pictures, he's not sure if the final project will be packaged as a book or take on some other form. And given the much larger scale of Block by Block, he readily acknowledges he may need to scale back his list of streets.

"When I start getting to Pennsylvania Avenue or North Avenue, which is, you know, so long, and Greenmount too, all those streets-I'm going to have to end up picking and choosing certain blocks and buildings. Unless I get a MacArthur grant," he says with a laugh. "Then I could work on it forever."

For more information visit bmoreblockbyblock.tumblr.com.

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