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Book Of The Week Atlantic City Photographs by Brian Rose Reviewed by Blake Andrews Atlantic City was born in the mid-nineteenth century and grew so big, so fast, that it captured the American imagination. It was 'the World's Playground'. Its hotels were the largest and finest, its nightclubs legendary, its boardwalk an endless promenade. And then, as it began to fade, the casinos came. And instead of reviving the city they killed it.
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Atlantic City. By Brian Rose.
https://www.photoeye.com/bookstore/citation.cfm?catalog=ZH880
Atlantic City  
Photographs by Brian Rose

Circa Press, 2019. 
128 pp., 11x12¾x2¼"

"Cities are built on closeness and connection, not on voids." This insight comes near the end of Paul Goldberger's introductory essay to Atlantic City, the new photobook by Brian Rose. "New Jersey's Potemkin village," Goldberger calls it, and Rose's photos confirm the judgement. The voids upon which cities are not built appear here in force, in virtually every image. There are 58 total in the book. Altogether their mood is relentlessly downcast. If you have some affinity for Atlantic City, look away. This book will not be cheery.

How did the city arrive at this point? Its long, sad decline is probably familiar to most and too lengthy to expound on here. For those curious, Goldberger's essay provides a concise local history from an architectural critic's perspective. To summarize, the metropolis which began as an aspirational symbol —"the world's playground" and the very root of the board game Monopoly!— hit one bottom after another throughout the 20th century. The advent of legalized gambling in 1976 was meant as a financial panacea. Instead it accelerated the collapse, as charlatans and confidence men rushed in feed on the helpless house of cards.

Against all odds, one of those swindlers eventually became the president of the United States. In some ways, Donald Trump and Atlantic City were a perfect match, a smooth-talking huckster set free amid the shady casino underworld. The result was perhaps inevitable. Trump sucked the city dry and then walked away, cynically capped by a lawsuit to have his name removed from its buildings.

It may be simplistic to blame all of Atlantic City's ills on Trump—his void was merely one of many—but his cartoonish-tycoonish persona fits nicely with photos of foreclosed blank facades. When Goldberger calls the city "a curious combination of the tawdry and the aspirational," he might be describing the president.

Rose holds an even less charitable view of the president. Just past the book's gilded end pages, one of the opening photos depicts the derelict Taj Mahal built precariously atop the nearby beach. Even stripped of its Trump signs, the building's message reads loud and clear: a glittering chimera built on a sandy foundation. To drive the point home, a short caption on the facing page recalls Trump's failures in Atlantic City.

The photo/text juxtaposition sets the pattern for most of the book's photographs. Images appear on the right page, supported by short bits of text on the left. There are drop quotes from politicians, pundits, and journalists recalling various promises made and broken to Atlantic City. Some of the text is by Rose himself. Perhaps a third are actual Trump tweets bragging about how he successfully ditched the city. Great timing…Not responsible…When I left, it went to hell. Etc.

Rose's photographs make a very good case for the place going to hell. The architecture was already terrible even before urban decay set in —"airport hotels with casinos attached," according to Goldberg. Before Rose's lens it looks even worse. Using large-format color film, he captures a broad swath of urban decay with each exposure. His tendency is to step back a bit from his subject matter, allowing some empty foreground —usually paved— into the bottom. The upper parts of the photographs reveal a shifting chiaroscuro of walls, advertisements, empty lots, weed patches, beach, parking garages, utility poles. This is the in-between vernacular, the daily detritus that normally contextualizes subject matter.

In Atlantic City, Rose forces the vernacular into a leading role, with obvious shortcomings. Although Atlantic City has almost 40,000 residents, you wouldn't know it from Rose's photos, which are largely uninhabited. The tone is post-apocalyptic or, if you prefer, post-Trump.

Is this a selective version of Atlantic City? Of course. No doubt one could wander the streets and find pockets of activity. But Rose sought out the empty spots instead, following a political agenda. The end result is a strong photographic and cultural statement. Thumbing through the book, one can't help wondering, as Goldberger does, "is Atlantic City emblematic of what is happening to the country as a whole?"

That national history is still being written, so we don't yet have an answer. Rose's book might be considered the nightmare scenario. Judging by the president's track record in Atlantic City, wider carnage is not implausible, and Rose's book might be seen in five years as an ominous warning. Will we spin the wheel and take another chance? Or call it good and walk away?

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Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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