PhilaU Industrial Design Professor Captures Wildwood’s Disappearing Past With New Book

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With Mark Havens’ new book, he captures Wildwood—and its many motels—in a state of transition.

With Mark Havens’ new book “Out of Season: The Vanishing Architecture of the Wildwoods,” the Philadelphia University assistant professor of industrial design captures the popular Jersey Shore spot in a state of transition. Its many motels—neon and brightly colored icons of the past—are being demolished at a record rate. Havens describes why he set out to photograph and celebrate these architectural marvels, what the future holds for Wildwood and his favorite building on PhilaU’s campus.

What was your inspiration to create this book?
My grandmother began going to Wildwood in the late 1930s and that tradition was passed on to multiple generations of my family. Beginning in the 1970s, it became a place where our extended family would gather for a one-week vacation every August. I was really blessed. For many years, we had four generations together there all at once.

This summer marked our 45th year in a row of getting together. It’s still a very special time for us all. Because I grew up with these motels as the backdrop of my summers for as long as I could remember, they seemed as immovable as mountains to me. But when they began to be demolished en masse, I realized they were something I needed to capture before they disappeared. That was over 10 years ago.

 Havens has traveled to Wildwood for the past 45 summers with his family.

Havens has traveled to Wildwood for the past 45 summers with his family.

What were some of the biggest challenges along the way?
At the start of the project, I wasn’t making art. I had no experience with photography and I wasn’t interested in learning. I paid a professional photographer to come down to Wildwood with me to shoot the motels that I pointed at.

The results were fine, but there was just something about them wasn’t getting what I was after. After exhausting every other possibility, I grudgingly purchased a secondhand 35mm camera and started—very tentatively—taking photographs.

As soon as I began, though, it was like someone flipped a switch. I’d suddenly found a medium with this wondrous immediacy to it that I’d never known before. It was exhilarating. The photographs were terrible, but I’d found a medium that I could create with.

The demolitions were much more frequent when I began. Each time I would take a trip to the town it seemed like I was greeted with new dirt lots where motels had been just a few days before. It was a difficult circumstance to try and learn in—a little like trying to figure out how to be a doctor by working in an emergency room. There was just no room for error. If I got it wrong (which I did quite a lot), there was very little chance I’d get to try again. The motels were disappearing that fast.

I remember a number of occasions during that time when I’d photograph a motel but get some part of the process wrong and not get any usable images. I’d return to try again only to find the motel had been demolished. For a time, it seemed like the more I shot, the faster the motels seemed to fall.

Eventually, though, I began to learn, and just as importantly, I began to quantify what exactly it was I was trying to capture. The deserted nature of the photographs (which turned into a primary component of the artistic statement I was trying to make with the project) actually started as a practical measure. I began by photographing several motels during the tourist season, but I soon realized that even a single car parked in front of a motel obscured a huge amount of what I wanted to show. I then tried photographing deep into the off-season, but the motels were fully closed up and dark, almost featureless.

Sometimes, it seemed like the more Havens shot, the faster the motels fell.

Sometimes, it seemed like the more Havens shot, the faster the motels fell.

I eventually figured out there were only two very small windows when it was possible to make the images that I envisioned: just prior to the beginning of the tourist season (at the beginning of May) and just after it concluded (at end of September). Only then were the lights on, the pools full, the chairs and plastic palm trees out, yet no one was around.

Once I began to shoot photographs devoid of people or activity of any kind, I realized the isolation actually clarified the bold architectural forms and, more importantly, served as an analogue of the larger situation. Many of these buildings were empty not simply because the summer is over but because the culture, for better or worse, has moved on.

I realized what I was actually trying to do was to bring out the interplay of an idealized past and its inexorable disappearance. People actually do inhabit these images but only by inference and allusion, and in many ways, it’s this physical absence from which the work draws its strength. Impressions are made at a more elemental depth, below explicit communication, echoing that most universal of all human experiences: the inexorable passage of time what’s left behind in its wake.

Architecturally, how different will Wildwood look 10 years from now?
My hope is that more of the motels are preserved and adapted for modern tastes while still retaining the original design features that made them unique. The Caribbean and The Shalimar are great examples of this approach succeeding.

The recession temporarily slowed the pace of motel demolitions in Wildwood, but now that the economy is starting to move again, more motels are disappearing. In addition to the demolitions, one of the other trends that seem to be getting more prevalent in Wildwood is “condo-ization.”

Havens hopes more of the motels are preserved and adapted for modern tastes while still retaining the original design features that made them unique.

Havens hopes more of the motels are preserved and adapted for modern tastes while still retaining the original design features that made them unique.

Developers will purchase a motel, remove the color scheme and signage (including the neon), add beige vinyl siding and a peaked shingle roof then sell each motel room off individually. The result is a structure that bears very little resemblance to what it once was.

What are some of your favorite photos?
It’s hard for me to talk about favorites. I think a lot of the reason I value certain images isn’t really tied to content but instead is driven by how difficult it was to get a particular shot. If I had to try and get an image multiple times because the light or the weather or my equipment didn’t cooperate or if the owner of the motel was cantankerous or something of that sort, I find I’ll value an image more highly.

That’s why it was so great—and necessary—to work with a good editor. Several years ago, I had the project pared down to 350 images (from an overall body of about 13,000), and I swore there was nothing left to cut. But that’s way beyond the length of a strong fine art photography book, so I began working with a very talented editor named Barbara Cox.

We had many intense conversations. I had to hear some very difficult things from her, but with that help, I could get the final body of work down to 105 images. I think it’s a much stronger book and series as a result.

What’s your favorite piece of architecture at PhilaU?
My favorite, by far, is The Design Center. It’s so beautiful and serene—a real treasure. In addition to the architecture itself, it seems so well-suited to its landscape.

The project originally began with about 13,000 photos. With the help of an editor, Havens got the final body of work down to 105 images.

The project began with 13,000 photos. With the help of an editor, Havens got the final body of work down to 105.

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