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Urban Archaeology Exhibit Takes Us To Hidden Places

Lewis Francis photo

Johns Hopkins University Montgomery County Campus is featuring the work of local photographer Lewis Francis. The art show will be on display through May 29 at 9605 Medical Center Drive in Rockville. All art exhibits on campus are free and open to the public. Hopkins Happenings asked Francis to tell us about his work, which focuses on urban archaeology.

Hopkins Happenings: Tell us about yourself.

Francis: I’m a single father of two young adults and the director of quality assurance at Threespot, an interactive agency in D.C. 

When I was young, I had dual, competing interests: photography and music, but I was also just getting started on my own, so one had to go. The rock and roll thing didn’t work out, and many years later I found myself wandering abandoned industrial sites with nothing but an iPhone for picture-taking and adventurous compatriots. After a few locations fell to the wrecking ball I realized I wanted to become more serious about my photography, and again picked up a camera and the challenge of learning the art and craft of image taking.

Hopkins Happenings: Tell us about your approach to your work.

Francis: I spend a surprising amount of my time researching locations, using online tools such as search engines and satellite mapping services to uncover potential sites to explore, how best to gain entry, and to learn their story. These locations are often poorly lit or even completely dark so typically require longer exposures and a certain amount of post-processing to bring out detail. I’m happy to be connected to a community of like-minded sorts that pool research and experiences and accompany each other both for reasons of safety and companionship. 

Hopkins Happenings: Tell us about the exhibit.

Francis: The exhibit covers a selection of generally aged and abandoned, neglected or decommissioned locations I’ve visited over the last two years where I photographed structures, spaces, textures and artifacts that caught my eye and imagination. The photos are printed using a process that infuses ink directly into specially coated aluminum sheets, which have hidden mounts allowing the image to appear to “float” off the wall.

Hopkins Happenings: What is urban archaeology? Tell us about it and why you choose it as a focus.

Francis: There are many names for this genre: UE and Urbex, acronym and abbreviation for “Urban Exploration,” there’s Urban Spelunking, the denigrating and lurid Ruin Porn, and so on. Urban Archaeology is as good as any at naming the drive to research, explore and document contemporary ruins and abandonments that often go unnoticed in our very own back yards. 

I’m not entirely sure why I’m drawn to this world. I do have an affinity for history and an appreciation for the passing effects of time, which perhaps become more acute as I age? When visiting these sites, you can’t help but wonder what forces drove a place to become abandoned, and which conspired or conspire to keep it that way. What can you learn by the evidence left behind? What kind of lives were led by the people who once worked at or called a place their home? What kind of marginal life does such a site support during its long decline? This last question is interesting because abandonments often become home or host to those themselves abandoned or alienated by society, given a new, final, purpose even in the midst of nature's steady reclamation. These are all questions or processes that intrigue me.

Hopkins Happenings: What specific places are photographed in the works that will be featured in this exhibit? How do you choose the spots to photograph?

Francis: I will say the show includes locations such as the Carrie Furnaces near Pittsburgh, Pa., massive iron blast furnace structures on a site that operated from 1884 to 1982, a steam plant and cell block from Virginia’s Lorton Prison, an underground water treatment plant, a blacksmith’s shop, a railroad workshop, a factory that once made clothing for women and children, an abandoned church, separate boneyards hosting streetcars and trucks, a coal processing facility, abandoned schools, a decommissioned power plant, Maryland’s Fort Washington, a whisky distillery, an abandoned farm house, grain processing facility and a couple of museum ships, one of which is now being scrapped. I tend to favor industrial or institutional sites and structures that were built before the modern habit of quick and cheap construction techniques, which when in decay are only marginally more enjoyable as when brand new.

Hopkins Happenings: What do you hope someone looking at the exhibit experiences or learns from your work?

Francis: Life is fleeting. Institutions, even entire industries that were once glorious have a limited lifespan. They are displaced by progress, changing fortunes, and tragedy. Enjoy them while you can, for tomorrow we die.