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Nicholas Whitman

  • Exhibition

  • On view now
  • B6: The Robert W. Wilson Building

Photographer Nicholas Whitman began photographing North Adams’ abandoned Sprague Electric Company factory in 1988 “because it would surely be razed.” Documenting the then-deteriorating 19th-century mill buildings, Whitman captured scenes ranging from vast postindustrial landscapes to minute traces of the plant’s former workers. Whitman’s meticulously composed photographs, windows onto the historic nature of MASS MoCA’s celebrated renovated factory campus, are now on view in the museum.

Preserving the “seemingly random collection of mill buildings” was a deeply personal mission. Whitman’s father came to work at Sprague as an engineer in 1959. Growing up, Whitman remembers that the site’s security was so tight, he was unable to visit his father at work until he was hired for a summer job etching aluminum foil in 1974. The company’s etching operations moved to the South not long after, marking the early phases of cost-cutting and outsourcing that ultimately led Sprague to close its operations on Marshall Street in 1985.

By the time Whitman began to photograph the site’s century-old buildings in 1988, they had begun to decline: floors buckled, paint peeled, and pigeons and spiders had made the quiet buildings their home. Whitman says, “I worked with a 4″× 5″ field camera and carried everything in order to be self-contained and mobile. The buildings are mostly interconnected, so once you were inside you could go anywhere. Many areas were quite dark, which made photography difficult because I only worked with the available light. The light is part of the place, and the place was what I was documenting.”

More personal hints of the factory’s industrial past — thousands of workers over more than a hundred years — remained. “Most compelling was evidence of the individuals who had spent so much of their lives within these walls,” Whitman notes. “It manifested itself in different and sometimes unexpected ways. There were discarded identification badges and personal effects, like coffee cups and well-worn chairs. There were scrawls on walls, numbers near the phone, and handwritten conversions from minutes to tenths of an hour on the wall near the punch clocks. The humanity of these industrial spaces is revealed in such details.”

About the artist
Nicholas Whitman is a photographer based in Berkshire County. He studied at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and is the former Curator of Photography at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. He has been commissioned to create photographs by institutions including the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Bennington Museum, Berkshire Museum, The Colonial Theatre, Chesterwood, Olana, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williams College Museum of Art, and Williams College, where he taught a landscape photography course each winter for two decades. Whitman’s photography is the subject of books including “The Colonial Theatre: A Pittsfield Resurrection” (2008); “After SPRAGUE ELECTRIC / Before MASS MoCA” (2013); “Sea, Shore, Sky & Ice” (2013); and “Wheels of Progress: The New Bedford Waterfront, circa 1980” (2015). His photographs can also be found in “MASS MoCA: From Mill to Museum,” a revised edition of which is forthcoming.

 

Nicholas Whitman
Main Gate
Courtesy of the artist

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