‘Echoes of Industry’: Amherst photographer finds ‘human factor’ in old Holyoke mills

Last modified: Thursday, May 08, 2014
Relatively new to western Massachusetts, Eric Broudy of Amherst followed a long-time love of photographing architecture to Holyoke’s waterfront factories. “As soon as I crossed the bridge leading into Holyoke,” he says, “I was struck by the array of old mill buildings.”

In Echoes of Industry: The Death and Rebirth of Holyoke’s Mills,” on view through Feb. 28 at the Wistariahurst Museum, Broudy’s photographs examine aspects of the life he found in old mill buildings. One series explores an elegiac beauty in post-industrial decay; the other lights up with lively new activity in renovated buildings.

Initially, Broudy focused on deteriorating structures slated for demolition. Some of his images document the historical setting, with views of vacant mills standing side by side along a strip of land between Water Street and the Connecticut River. An exterior view of the former Albion Paper Company building, for example, shows a proud shell of weathered red bricks with blue-tinged windows, and a loading dock area punctuated by posts painted hot industrial yellow. “Here and there, you see these strong pulses of primary color. Is it accidental?” he wonders, suggesting faint hints of a lingering human factor.

Other photographs move up to close in on the details of crumbling architecture and rusted heavy metal equipment, tending more toward abstraction relying on elements of color, composition, texture and form than on historical documentation. “Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what it is,” Broudy admits, referring to an arrangement of circles with diagonal lines, arcs of rusty metal and a slash of a coiled spring, combining a palette of blue-green hues with earth tones of burnt sienna and ochre. (He can identify other heavy machinery, however, such as the orange electrical generator rising from the rubble of the Mt. Tom Paper Company building.)

A melancholy feel

Debris dominates some images, which present a chaotic jumble of bricks pushing through broken walls and ceilings in the Crocker Manufacturing building. “It’s almost like a war zone in its devastation, when everything comes crashing down,” Broudy said. In contrast, other images are austere and elegantly geometric in their empty spaces, like the factory floor with its repeating columns plunging towards a one-point perspective.

“The large vacant interior has a melancholy feel. It makes me think of the people who once worked there,” Broudy said. Some images offer oblique signs of former human presence — a red sweatshirt draped over a bright blue waste barrel in one photograph, for instance. But most of the photographs, absent any human presence, convey an atmosphere of abandoned buildings housing a bygone history.

Names of the buildings suggest their histories: Mt. Tom Paper Company, Nonotuck Paper Company, Gill Paper Company, with Albion Paper Company in the middle, still standing, but not for much longer. Around the beginning of the 20th century, Holyoke produced more paper than perhaps any other place in the world, and the name “Paper City” was well earned.

However, shift to present time and salvage precedes demolition of now-closed paper mills. Massive pipes and slender tubing, heavy wooden beams, large-scale sliding metal doors and pallet after pallet of reclaimed bricks — many and various parts of the old mills are resold and shipped to destinations all around the world. Along with pragmatic recycling, there’s also a poignant optimism, like the idea of organ donation, with a healthy kidney or a vigorous lung continuing, after death, to help save or improve another life in another body.

New life featured in video

Broudy found even greater optimism in nearby renovated industrial spaces along Race, Lyman, Dwight and Cabot streets. Concerned that focusing on abstract beauty in decay and demolition might be “too much of a downer,” he also photographed community activity and new business now burgeoning in repurposed mills. “Holyoke: Repapered City” is the result, a video slide show of over 60 images celebrating the vital buzz of local small businesses — a selection that Broudy notes is representative, but not comprehensive.

Scenes from the Holyoke Farmers’ Market and the annual Holyoke Brick Race, plus art galleries, a bridal boutique, a children’s theater group, a brewery, a shoemaker and a yoga studio show in rapid succession on a video screen, in a four-minute repeating loop set to music. The ever-shifting images on the backlit brilliance of the video monitor convey the lively bustle of activity in the repurposed mills. There are glimpses of the old mills — in large factory windows peeking out behind curtains and mirrors in the bridal shop, the rows of metal kegs and tubing in the brewery, and the craft and material clutter of art studios — but the sequence offers quite a contrast to the mournful presence Broudy finds in the mills soon to be demolished.

“There’s great beauty even in the [seeming] ugliness of buildings being destroyed,” Broudy states. And this is not the first time he has discovered beauty in an unexpected setting. Last summer, at Gallery A3 in Amherst, he exhibited photographs based on pollution in the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus pond. “You think ‘pollution’ and of course you think ‘yuck,’” he says. “But look at it—and then you can see wonderful patterns and colors, in great abstract forms.”

“I grew up in my father’s darkroom,” he said, “mesmerized by the chemical smells, perhaps, but even more by the sheer magic of the images appearing in the developing tray.” Now Broudy works with a digital camera — no more of those toxic chemicals — but photography, for him, is still about the magic of the image appearing when and where it does.

“Photography is my way of seeing the world,” he explains. He is not always looking through the lens, but, as he explains, “having the camera as my constant companion trains me to look at things.” And, of course, those occasions when he does not have his camera — well, “That’s exactly the time I look around and notice, oh, the light’s just right on that building.”

Eric Broudy’s “Echoes of Industry: The Death and Rebirth of Holyoke’s Mills” is on view through Feb. 28 at Wistariahurst Museum, 238 Cabot St. in Holyoke. Hours are Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays from noon to 4 p.m. Admission to the gallery is $3. For information call 322-5660 or visit wistariahurst.org.