The huge stone quarries that hide in the landscapes of Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky are strange things, monsters of ruggedly carved-out negative space that — when abandoned and filled with water — attract illicit swimmers and divers.
The surreal beauty of the quarries, wet and dry, also attracted Los Angeles photographer Elena Dorfman. After spending two years on the project and accumulating thousands of images, she has published a spectacular book called Empire Falling. It’s also the name of an exhibit at Phyllis Weston Gallery in O’Bryonville until May 11.
The show’s ten digital color prints make a big impact for numerous reasons. There is the matter of their own size — one is 42-by-97 inches and dominates its wall space. Others are sizeable, too. Then, there is the overall greenness of many — the effect is like finding a lost city inside the deepest, thickest overgrowth.
That effect is especially present in “Empire Falling 4,” where green trees above and greenish water below border a notched, chiseled stone wall lined with graffiti — including a scrawled shout-out to Cincinnati’s Rumpke Mountain Boys. A young girl swings on a rope out in front of that wall, seemingly ready to drop into the water.
But wait a minute! The graffiti in this image is naturalistic, yes. But that girl, on close examination, seems to be disappearing into the wall. She’s an apparition, in a way. That’s good introduction to the surreal layering — the adroit, subtle combining of smaller images, not necessarily from any single quarry — that Dorfman has done to make each photograph more atmospheric and impressionistic, rather than solely documentary. This is her world — it’s different from what we would see if we went to these places.
What she has done mimics how the quarry was formed, only in reverse — bit by bit, she has created a new landscape, just as piece by piece, quarry operators removed rock from the earth. In short, she has manipulated her documentary images to create something new. As a result, individual quarries are not identified.
“The rock is the common theme; the changing landscape is as well,” she says by phone from L.A.
“But I asked, ‘How can I make this my own and tell the story I want to tell?’ ”
This process was like working with a giant jigsaw puzzle. “There were thousands of images I shot,” she explains. “For me to keep them straight, I made cutouts of pictures I like from each quarry scene. I had hundreds of pages of small four-by-five printouts. Then I tried to cut and paste them to physically see what they looked like together. I’m trying to get a sense of what can tell the story. Then I went on the computer and started pulling those images.”
Eventually she digitally created a composite, although not necessarily one radically different from reality. “Although each basic scene is generally what I saw, the components that made up a picture could come from any of the pictures I had taken,” she says. “Images are made up from between three and 300 images.”
The show’s (and book’s) pièce de résistance, the 42-by-97-inch “Empire Falling 21,” whose painted and graffiti-covered cliff walls seem to extend forever, involved 300 smaller pictures.
Dorfman isn’t known as a landscape photographer. But she says this series conforms to her general approach. “I’m interested in things that are a little bit behind the scenes, off the radar and percolating beneath the surface,” she says.
Maybe her best-known project is 2005’s Still Lovers, portraits of life-size, lifelike adult female sex dolls, sometimes with their real-life male companions. Work from that was in Cincinnati Art Museum’s 2011 show of the 21c Museum Hotel Collection, and her book Still Lovers was published by the museum’s then-photography curator, James Crump. And Empire Falling is published by Damiani/Crump.
She got interested in quarries after a short-term assignment took her to an Indiana quarry where people jumped into water. She believes that may have triggered an older memory.
“When you’re an image-driven person, you store something away in your brain and hopefully someday it comes back to you,” she says. “My sister had gone to college in Ithica and I used to go with her to the quarries and see people jumping when I was 10 (and visiting).
“And I think I’ve seen films of people jumping. So it’s been a visual memory.” (A famous 1979 movie, the Oscar-winning Breaking Away, is set in Bloomington, Ind., and features an abandoned quarry where youths get together and relax and swim.)
Finding new quarries to photograph became an exciting part of Dorfman’s project. After getting tips from people in the region, she’d do research and then survey sites using the Internet. “There was a website of quarries in the region and many were gone,” she says. “I’d look up old photographs of them, find out where they were, and then go to Google Earth and see what I could still find from above. That’s often how I’d find abandoned quarries.”
Then she’d take off, usually with a friend from Louisville, Ky., looking for the real thing. “Some have been inactive for 75 years, but there are still telltale signs,” she explains. “I didn’t have to deal with people, but I had to deal with nature. It was very hard to access.”
The project takes its name from the abandoned Empire Quarry in Oolitic, Ind., where the limestone for the Empire State Building originated. Dorfman also started her project by shooting people diving and jumping into the water. Only she called them “fallers” — thus, Empire Falling.
But the title has taken on additional meaning to her. “It became so much more,” she said. “About what the industry was, what the country was when these were being built and were active, the economic collapse and environmental collapse.”
Thus, Empire Falling could be all of us.
EMPIRE FALLING: NEW PHOTOGRAPHS FROM ELENA DORFMAN is on view at Phyllis Weston Gallery in O’Bryonville through May 11. More info: phyllisweston.com or 513-321-5200.