Baltimore, a History Block By Block: Q&A with James Singewald
When he is not busy shooting rare, historic objects for the Maryland Historical Society, James Singewald keeps himself occupied with a more personal form of historic preservation. For the past six years he’s been capturing the deteriorating urban landscape of Baltimore City, one block at a time.
This week, we highlight Singewald’s work, which recently appeared in the Maryland Historical Magazine and has been featured in The Baltimore Sun’s DarkRoom. We also hope to bring attention to his ongoing project on Kickstarter where he is crowdsourcing funds to document ten main streets and avenues in the city, a project he calls Baltimore: A History Block By Block. We hope this not only gets the word out about this worthwhile project, but also serves as a clear example of how researchers, even artists, use the library here at MdHS.
Underbelly’s Joe Tropea caught up with his coworker, currently recuperating from a foot injury, for this brief Q&A.
Underbelly: Where did you grow up?
James Singewald: I grew up in Providence, RI, but moved to Philadelphia in 1998 for undergraduate school at the University of the Arts. I stayed in Philly for ten years and moved to Baltimore in 2008 for grad school at MICA.
U: When did you begin photographing Baltimore as a subject and when did you begin working at MdHS?
JS: I started photographing Baltimore in 2008 during my first semester at MICA. I started working at MdHS around the spring/summer of 2011.
U: Other than school and work, what is your connection to Baltimore?
JS: My father grew up in Baltimore and the whole Singewald side of the family is from here as well. They were German immigrants who moved here in the late 1870s and ’80s. They settled in East Baltimore in Fells Point, Old Town, and Oliver.
I used my family history as a starting point in figuring out what my thesis would be during my time at MICA. I started photographing buildings my ancestors used to own, work, and live in around the city. I also went looking for the Wells-McComas monument for which my great-great grandfather, Louis Kornmann, was the volunteer caretaker for a time. He owned the Ashland Cigar Emporium across the street from the monument at Gay and Aisquith Streets.
When I found the monument I found Old Town Mall, formerly Gay Street, which I came to learn is a failed urban renewal project from the 1970s. I was struck by this odd looking, two-block pedestrian mall just east of downtown and how isolated it was, resembling a ghost town. But I was also impressed by the variety of architecture and of how old this place really was (one of the first three settlements of Baltimore).
I wanted to do a neighborhood specific project that included research and background on the places I photographed. My previous work in Philadelphia was more about exploration and photographing interesting places and buildings. I really wanted to put something of substance behind the pictures. I decided to photograph the entire two blocks of Old Town Mall, building by building. I then researched the history behind it and how it changed from a thriving marketplace to the ghost town it is today. I compiled all of the research and photography into a self-published book titled, Old Town, East Baltimore. There’s a copy in the library.
U: How has working at MdHS helped you with your current project?
JS: It has. I’ve got a long list of item IDs for photographs from the Baltimore City Life Museums collections of what the places I’m currently photographing looked like 50 to 100 years ago. I’m also planning on using the Passano-O’Neill file to research the individual histories of the properties I’m documenting. I plan to use this information for my next book. I also enjoy looking at the Sanborn maps as well.
U: I’ve heard you mention that Baltimore photographers from a hundred years ago have influenced your work. Who are some of your favorites? How have they influenced you?
JS: I really enjoy the work done by the Hughes Company, John Dubas, Paul Henderson, and Julius Anderson. And there’s so many unidentified photographers as well that have amazing photos of what Baltimore looked like as it was being built.
Before I worked at MdHS and was introduced to the photo collections, I was doing similar work to what these photographers did a century ago. And when I started getting familiar with these historic photos I thought it was an interestingl coincidence that my work was similar and just so happened that our work was 100 years apart. It gave me more confidence in what I’m doing, knowing that something similar was done before me.
U: How does the notion that 50 to 100 years from now researchers may be using your images in their research strike you? Do you plan to take any measures to aid them?
JS: That’s part of my motivation in doing this work. To leave an archive of city streets and neighborhoods that will soon be redeveloped and changed in the coming years. And I’m definitely thinking of useful ways to make this work available for future generations whether it be a book or an interactive website of sorts. I also was thinking it would be a good idea to link images to the Passano-O’Neill file.
U:What kind of equipment/film are you using and why did you choose it?
JS: I’m using Fujichrome Velvia 4×5 transparency film and a Calumet Cambo 4×5 view camera. Since I’m shooting architecture, it only made sense to use a large format view camera so that I’m able to tilt my lens and correct the perspective. The detail from 4×5 film is excellent as well. I chose the Fujichrome Velvia film because of the way it over saturates the colors. With good light, this film really makes the buildings pop and I like to say that it brings the facades back in a way that the viewer can catch a glimpse of what the buildings used to be and the potential they hold.
U: This is not your first time using Kickstarter, is it?
JS: No. I think it’s important to note the size of this project and how much progress I’ve made since my initial Kickstarter in 2011. The money I raised the first time around enabled me to purchase necessary camera equipment and 200 sheets of 4×5 film. Since then, I’ve managed to photograph at least one block from each of the ten streets I chose to document. The two streets I’ve photographed the most of are Howard Street (roughly from Lombard to Madison Street) and West Baltimore Street (from MLK Blvd. to Fulton). I ran out of film and funds last May. If my current Kickstarter is successful, I’ll use the funds to stock up enough film to finish most of the photography leg of the project. The rest of the money will go to lab processing and will also help me to begin paying for publishing costs, printing and framing, as well as exhibition expenses. I hope to complete this work and begin to present it to the public within the next two years or so.
U: What are the goals of this project?
JS: Like many American cities, Baltimore is in the midst of a lot of changes. There is a lot of re-development going on and many buildings and neighborhoods will look very different in the next 10 years or so. Much of the old parts of Baltimore will cease to exist. Some will be rehabbed. I want to build an archive of these streets, buildings, and neighborhoods that captures what the city looks like today much like photographers 100 years ago were documenting the city as it was being built and rebuilt.
U: What do you want people to take away from the finished work?
JS: My photography is meant to leave you not only with a sense of the condition of our cities, but also a feeling of urgency to see that they are improved and preserved and that the rich history behind the architecture and the community is not lost, but rather embraced.
U: Good luck. We’re pulling for you.
Further reading and viewing:
Singewald, James. Old Town, East Baltimore. Baltimore, MD. Self published, 2010. MF226.044.S617 2010.