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On Tuesday, Bethesda-based photographer Michael Borek opens a solo exhibit at the Multiple Exposures Gallery in Alexandria. The exhibit, “Effective Immediately,” features 26 images made in an abandoned lace factory in Scranton, Pa.
Borek was born and raised in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and worked there as a freelance interpreter and translator. After the fall of communism, he was offered a job in Orlando, Fla. When that project ended in 1996, he moved to D.C. to be close to the State Department, for whom he has interpreted, and to one of his good friends from high school. Borek has also toyed with photography since his childhood. In an interview, Borek discussed his career, the bridges of Montgomery County, and what he sees amid Scranton’s post-industrial decay.
Washington City Paper: Give me a brief rundown of your photography career.
Michael Borek: I have always “played” with photography, starting at a very early age with my father’s German twin-lens Ikoflex. This camera was not cheap, so it was under the supervision of my dad. Later on, as a teenager, I used a Russian-made Smena 8, which was much cheaper and worse than the Ikoflex, but came without supervision from my dad.
When I was at high school, I remember a friend, also a budding photographer, asking me why I took pictures of “weird and ugly stuff,” like discarded things and dilapidated buildings. At that time, I was not sure why, but I now realize that I was probably drawn to them because when I grew up under communism, they felt real, unlike the make-believe reality the regime tried to create. And somehow, this attraction stayed with me. Another photographer-friend, an American, teases me, saying, “Michael Borek has a rare ability of being able to turn the most beautiful scenery into a bleak Eastern European scene.”
Until 2002, I just played with photography. But when I bought my first digital camera, photography became a full-time obsession. It was not just the instant gratification of digital photography, but also the ability to get much better control of processing and printing. Several years ago, I became a member of the Multiple Exposures Gallery and started showing my photographs. Three years ago, I had a solo show at the Czech Embassy in Washington, D.C., and a year ago, I was a featured artist in the Rayko Gallery in San Francisco. This year, my photographs from the lace factory in Scranton were selected for juried shows by curators from the Corcoran, Whitney, Hirshhorn, and Getty museums.
WCP: Tell me a little bit about some of your projects—-what you look for, and what you’re trying to express.
MB: One project is called “The Bridges of Montgomery County.”
When I moved to Brookmont, a little neighborhood in Bethesda near the Potomac, I was drawn to very functional and utilitarian bridges there. Even though the bridges of Montgomery County are not as traditionally photogenic as their more famous cousins in Madison County, Iowa, they often seem to be symbols connecting, or trying to connect, two opposing worlds—-nature and technology, day and night, consciousness and subconsciousness.
For the series “Wide Asleep/Half Awake,” I took pictures mostly during the day, but they contain nocturnal elements that suggest the sensation of simultaneously being awake and asleep. They document my encounters with scenes that felt intense, sometimes even dark and strange, yet also oddly familiar. Perhaps they capture dreams that I have yet to experience. Or maybe they seem familiar because I have dreamed of them before. I am not entirely sure about the meaning of these pictures; my subconscious may be trying to get the upper hand.
And the series “Words Left Over” stems from my being drawn to old signs. I did not want to photograph them like Walker Evens or William Christenberry, in the context of their surroundings. Instead, I focused on language and isolated words within words. So, for example, “RadioShack” became “adioS,” “Treasures” became “sure,” and “Auto Parts” became “art.” I took most of these pictures after the original sign had been removed, and so, instead of generic lettering, these word-objects are often just imprints of the signs, decorated by screws, scratches, old paint, and rust.
WCP: How did you first hear about the Scranton lace factory, why did it intrigue you, and how hard was it for you to get access to it?
MB: Friends of friends, after seeing my photographs of deteriorating signs and understanding my affinity for things that are not what they used to be, put me in touch with people who knew people who connected me with the current owner of Scranton Lace. He was nice enough to provide me with unlimited access to the factory.
WCP: Describe what it’s like to be there today.
One Friday, in May 2002, Robert Hine, vice president of Scranton Lace Co., called all employees together in the middle of their shift to break the news that the factory was closing, “effective immediately.” The words “effective immediately” sound very ominous, and that is why I selected them for the title of my exhibition.
Following that announcement, many things happened, effective immediately. All the factory operations stopped; some of the looms were left with unfinished lace still in them. People were sent home and left behind some personal belongings.
Some of the resulting juxtapositions embodied Andre Breton’s definition of surrealism as “the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.” I became fascinated by this place where time literally stood still, and one could walk through different areas like an archeologist sifting through the layers of history.
One room had four huge windows. While seemingly identical, sections of these windows were in various stages of disrepair. Behind the glass, nature had taken charge and reclaimed the place. The backlit plants outside created random patterns that contrasted with the geometric structure of the window frames. The scene felt majestic and gave me the sense of being in a cathedral with beautiful stained glass windows.
WCP: What are some of your favorite images from the Scranton series, and why? And what does this say to you about the present and future of a city like Scranton?
MB: Most of my favorite pictures from Scranton are those that are not Scranton- and lace-specific, such as a picture of a red leather chair on a stage of a company theater with a curtain half drawn as if to say “the show is over.” Or the simple and almost Zen-like sheets of punch card hanging from the racks in a beautiful light dispersed by the dirt on the windows; they were predecessors of now obsolete computer-card technology.
There is one picture, though, that could not have been taken anywhere else but in Scranton. It is a picture of a window of a showroom with a sign that used to say, “Beautify your home by Scranton.” The window is now broken, so one can read only, “Beautify your,” while the piece of the glass with the word “home” lies at the bottom, and all that is left from the word Scranton is “S.”
To me, this picture symbolizes the whole place, and I also like that the window reflects what seem to be trees. (It’s actually a peeling wall-paper of trees on the opposite wall). In front of the window, there are piles of the above-mentioned punch cards, and one can see their reflection in the window, as if there were two worlds present at the same time. This picture is quite complex, yet the prevailing visual message seems to be “Beautify,” since the bright red lettering is the most dominant in the picture. It reminds me of a puzzling quote by Dostoevsky: “Beauty will save the world.” It seems to be an uphill struggle.
WCP: Are you a full-time photographer today? If not, what else do you do?
MB: Mentally, I am more than a full-time photographer, meaning that I spend probably more than 8 hours daily reflecting on photography. But for reasons of a more steady cash-flow, I still work as a freelance Czech translator and interpreter. But I am slowly cutting back on that work to have more time to do photography.
The exhibit runs from Oct. 4 to Nov. 7 at Multiple Exposures Gallery in the Torpedo Factory Art Center, Studio 312, 105 N. Union Street, Alexandria, Va. (703) 683-2205. Hours are 11 a.m.–6 p.m. daily and 2 p.m.–9 p.m. on Thursdays.