Deeply fascinated by industrial ruins since his childhood, Milanese photographer and urban planner Marcello Modica gradually developed his interest in documenting former industrial sites in different spots of the world. After having paid regular visits to an abandoned fibre factory in the northern suburbs of Milan as a kid, a couple of years later, Marcello decided to depict what he was seeing and experiencing.
The aim of his photography is to transmit the direct experience of the place and to preserve and disclose the visual memory of the industrial age, as well as to shine a new light on the long forgotten and neglected sites and display their status quo. Marcello’s photography shows how once most busy, active and important places have become void and soulless ruins. Even though the former industrial sites are lapsed and undervalued, the photographer’s works carry the hope that these sites might still revive and return to their former glory.
Marcello Modica Metalmagazine 1.jpg
How did you get fascinated by industrial ruins and when did you start documenting them?
The fascination with industrial ruins dates back to my childhood. I was born in Milan in 1987 and grew up in one of its northern suburbs, home to what used to be the largest synthetic fibres factory in Italy. With its super modernist architecture and multiple sky-high chimneys, this old factory soon became a regular and somehow friendly presence in my everyday landscape. After many years spent daydreaming about it, at the age of fifteen I decided I could not wait anymore. On a gloomy winter afternoon, I took my bike and cycled to the site with the intention of trying to get inside. And I succeeded! Since then, I started visiting the factory on a regular basis.
Photography came a couple of years later, as soon as I felt the need to document what I was seeing and experiencing. I started with a compact digital camera given to me by my father and then shifted to DSLRs. Meanwhile, I extended the research of similar places to the surroundings and beyond. As the number of visited sites was increasing, in 2005 I decided to open a website called Still Alive to share my photographs and the stories behind them. The rest is, more or less, well documented.
The goal of your photography is to “preserve and disclose the visual memory of the industrial age while encouraging a positive look at places often neglected and far from being considered as heritage.” Why do those places get neglected? Do you think there is any way we could revive these sites and use them differently?
“First, there is a golden age, the time of harmonious beginnings. Then ensues a period when the old days are forgotten and the golden age falls into neglect. Finally, there comes a time when we rediscover and seek to restore the world around us to something like its former beauty. But there has to be that interval of neglect, there has to be discontinuity; it is religiously and artistically essential.” These words by John Brinckerhoff Jackson (1980) perfectly describe the approach of our contemporary, post-industrial society towards industrial ruins. In the last thirty or forty years, major structural changes such as globalization and the shift to the knowledge-based economy have caused the rapid decline of earlier forms of production, and thus of the many places where these changes used to be performed.
Confronted by such an amount of useless space and driven by our necessity to keep things from the past, we have gradually learned how to interact with these former industrial landscapes and to make them useful again according to new cultural and economic paradigms. Although there are plenty of possibilities for reusing old industrial sites (cultural and artistic venues, co-working spaces, post-industrial landscape parks, etc.), I personally consider the best solutions the ones that deliberately integrate change and uncertainty. This means considering the former industrial site more as a living organism rather than an artificial object, thus leaving an open end to transformation instead of imposing a final state. It can be defined, somehow, an ecological perspective.
Which was the most memorable site you have photographed? Can you share with us its history and how did you end up there?
That's a tricky question! Besides my hometown's factory, to which I am deeply tied, I can name several amazing places competing for the top. If I really have to choose one, I would say a huge chemical factory in north-western Greece, in which I spent an entire week in spring 2014. The site is known as Aeval (Αεβαλ in Greek), which stands for Anonymous Greek Company for Nitrogen Fertilizers. It was founded in 1963-65 on the outskirts of Ptolemaida, at the centre of a major brown coal mining area. This was not by chance, since the factory was planned to manufacture chemical fertilizers through the gasification of the local lignite under German-Italian license (UHDE/Casale process).
Following the liberalization of the Greek fertilizer market in 1992, the increasing national and international competition forced an already obsolete and polluting plant to close down later in 1997. I discovered this site almost by chance during one of my many virtual land surveys on Google Maps. After some research (and a lot of Google Translator), I found potential local contacts and contacted them through email. I was lucky and, a couple of months later, I found myself in front of the plant with an official access permit on one hand and the camera ready to shoot on the other.
Marcello Modica Metalmagazine 2.jpg
The reorganization of economies for manufacturing purposes entirely changed the way people lived in the industrial era. According to you, what were the negative and the positive sides of industrialization in relation to humans/society?
From my point of view, it is hard to select exclusively negative and positive aspects of industrialization for the simple reason that they have often represented both sides of the coin. Massive industrialization has fostered the homologation of humans, and thus local cultures, but at the same time, it has pushed forward social progress through the acquisition of civil rights and class awareness. What I got to understand after visiting many old factories and by talking to former employees, is that life in the previous years to the industrial society was harder than today for most of the people (just consider the working and living conditions), but also richer with solidarity between individuals and social groups. This now gone form of productivity was indeed accompanied by a certain degree of social development and social cohesion, while the contemporary labour system tends to impoverish social relations as well as isolating the individuals.
Lifestyle is not the only thing the industrial revolution transformed; architecture changed dramatically in response to the new industrial landscape – steel and iron started replacing other materials, for example. From what you have photographed, which site would you choose as the most vivid symbol of this transition and why?
I would say the impressive steel factories in the Wallonian industrial belt, the former coal mining and steelmaking region stretching between the Belgian cities of Mons and Liège. The former Carsid plant in western Charleroi is a very good example of the typical heavy-industry landscape of continental Europe, i.e. an intricate network of giant structures such as blast furnaces and sintering plants are bound by kilometres of aerial walkways, stairways, and pipelines. Unfortunately, old industrial landscapes like that of Charleroi are disappearing so quickly that in a few years it will be quite hard to imagine what they used to be, despite the probable existence of a few (hopefully) preserved parts.
You have also photographed chemical fibre factories in Ukraine and steel and iron factories in Poland. What are the main differences you encountered between the western and the former Soviet industrial sites?
It's all about the intactness of the sites and their surveillance. In western countries, it is quite usual to find almost a hundred per cent intact former industrial plants, not just in terms of built structures but also with regards to machinery and leftover stuff. And except the most sensible sites, old factories are not so tightly guarded. The latter is a problem in big cities because of the lack of surveillance easily turns valuable intact places into filthy backyards. On the opposite, sites I have encountered in former Soviet countries are dilapidated but strongly guarded (funny, isn’t it?). Here, the high degree of decay is not related to the aging of structures, which are actually younger than their western counterparts, but to the poor building quality and the tolerated phenomena of ‘informal dismantling’, which means, the removal of building components (from metal scraps to bricks) by local needy inhabitants.
Marcello Modica Metalmagazine 5.jpg
Those who’ve seen Michelangelo Antonini’s film Red Desert (1964) will love your photographs, taken in 2014. Can you tell us more about the Red Desert photo series?
Red Desert ranks among my most beloved movies. For some time, I was planning to visit the film locations to see if and how they’d changed since the film came out. I took the chance of a short visit to Ravenna. I was quite lucky because the weather in those mid-winter days was exactly the same as in the movie. This helped me a lot to recreate the film atmosphere. While driving along the deserted roads of the industrial zone, I was seriously expecting to see Monica Vitti wandering around in the fog.
Seriously, when I was there, I was so captivated by the place that I decided not to focus just on the film locations, but to use them as an introduction to the whole scenery. Therefore, in the photo series, I included some other spots I considered useful to unveil the genius loci, such as the former Sarom oil refinery, a huge empty site with two mid-standing giant cooling towers which, in my opinion, perfectly describe how much the area has changed in the last fifty years.
Apart from being a photographer, you are an urban planner. How does your profession interact with your interest in photography?
The decision to undertake a career in urban planning came as a result of my photographic background. While wandering around old industrial sites and ruined landscapes, I always asked myself if and how they would ever be revitalized. And, if revived, what consequences might they have on their surroundings. This led me to focus on topics such as urban landscape transformation and urban regeneration, which have become my main practice and research field. I am currently doing a PhD in landscape architecture and planning at the Technical University of Munich, where I am working on the transformation of former industrial landscapes in the Alps. This project is giving me the great opportunity to increase my professional knowledge and the possibility to combine it with my photographic experience. It all makes sense, in the end, doesn’t it?
Have you chosen your next destination already?
Not yet. I’ve been having Hungary on my list for a while and also some spots in the Caucasus, which are worth taking a trip.
Marcello Modica Metalmagazine 3.jpg
Marcello Modica Metalmagazine 4.jpg