Ben Marcin likes to tell the stories, real or imagined, behind each photograph he thoughtfully composes. Here’s one. Location: 4006 Pulaski Highway, Baltimore. Background: House once inhabited by a gypsy. History: One day a young man entered and had his fortune told. He went away, thought about it, and decided he didn’t much like what he heard. “Then,” Marcin continues in the same cool tone, “he came back with a saw and cut her head off. That’s a true story. I have the article.”
Twenty years later, in 2014, he snapped a picture of the dwelling. Known locally as the Gypsy Murder House, it had remained empty all those years between a power station and a Dunkin’ Donuts. “Nobody wanted to buy the house. It was haunted, right?” Marcin suggests. “Until someone finally said, ‘Let’s knock the place down.’”
In 2017, he photographed the site again. Power lines shadow one side of the cleared lot, its clay soil leveled like a fresh grave. A bright orange crane looms opposite. “They extended the Dunkin’ Donuts’ parking lot there,” Marcin notes as a postscript. “That Dunkin’ Donuts has become quite popular.”
The diptych portraits are part of his “Last House Standing” series. Taken mostly in Baltimore, the pictures document solitary row houses, stripped of attached neighbors or isolated on demolished blocks—lone survivors of a vanishing species.
He points to a house in the series, its elegant cornice has fallen into decay, and others marred by peeling paint or bullet holes. “These houses were meant to last forever, but they couldn’t withstand what society did to them; so to me they represent an act of defiance,” he says.
“They are old row houses, like the one we’re standing in now,” he continues, referring to his own home and workplace less than five miles from the notorious gypsy site. “The fact that they are still standing is quite rare. You don’t see them often.”
For 20 years, he and his wife, Lynn Marcin, have lived in a grand 19th-century townhouse on an intact Baltimore block— the epicenter for the most regional locations illuminated in his poignant and classic photographs.
About five years ago, Marcin started mixing it up. Still aiming his lens downtown, he began shooting urban office buildings, parking garages, and warehouses. “I like structures,” he says. But rather than representing them realistically, he telescopes in on segments of the buildings, taking close-up views that become abstract blocks in a larger grid.
Holding up one sheet with a lattice of parking-garage images, the photographer explains, “From a distance, these look like a series of abstract patterns. Getting closer, you can see that they are garages and maybe recognize, ‘Oh, I park there!’” While similar in style, his “Tower” series employs a completely different technique. Each is a single, tightly cropped shot. “2400 Chestnut Street,” a high-rise condominium in Philadelphia, appears as a network of dots and dashes, as on an electronic circuit board.
“The whole point,” Marcin explains, “is maybe a thousand people live in that building, and I’ve reduced them to this generic, cogs-in-a-wheel type of thing. Unlike with the row houses, which are really, really personal, this looks like a dystopian honeycomb.”
His photographs of museums push the level of abstraction to the limit. Instead of taking pictures of well-known artworks or identifiable architecture, Marcin isolates anonymous aspects of the buildings’ infrastructure. Walking the length of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Egyptian Wing, he shot only close-ups of track lighting above the gallery’s display cases. From those hundreds of individual photographs, he later compiled a jazzy, earth-toned mosaic. At Baltimore’s historic Walters Art Museum, Marcin skipped the formal galleries and headed to its student center in the basement, where photographs of its brightly painted walls were turned into a crazy quilt of dazzling colors.
“My earlier work is more representational, more recognizable,” the photographer says about his stylistic development, adding, “I’ve continued to shoot in a representational format, but the presentation is more conceptual.”
Marcin is frequently asked whether he takes one image and copies it hundreds of times. “Each is a different image,” he responds, “just slightly different but different enough so that it doesn’t look like an artificial copy, a factory design.”
If anyone could reproduce images in a flash, it would be Marcin. During the 30 years he has pursued his art, he also worked full-time as a computer programmer and senior software developer at the Social Security Administration near Baltimore, retiring three years ago to focus on photography full-time. During those decades, while putting in eight-to-10-hour days at the office, he returned home to work in his darkroom. At first printing color pictures using an enlarger and the Cibachrome chemical process, he later transitioned to a “digital darkroom” that includes a computer, a scanner and two Epson printers, all calibrated so that colors come out the same on a print of any size.
Marcin’s recent abstractions revisit an early interest in modern art, dating back to a time when his father, who worked at the Library of Congress, tried to inspire his talented son by bringing home art imagery. Indifferent back then to the art of Michelangelo, Bellini and “cherubs in the sky,” he says, he responded to the abstract paintings of Jackson Pollack and Helen Frankenthaler. “Their creative process was very interesting to me. I wanted to do something like that with the camera.”
Initially, Marcin shot pictures of walls and landscapes with a small 35 mm camera while visiting exotic places—Guatemala during its civil war, Mexico, India, China. “I was traveling for myself. Once the photography took over, I was traveling for the photographs,” he says. Since that time, the photographer has turned to a variety of cameras suited to different jobs, from a wooden, four-by-five, large-format field camera to a Canon digital single-lens reflex to a Nexus 6P cell phone.
While the style of his pictures has evolved, the subjects have shifted closer to home. “It’s kind of the story of life,” he reflects. “When you are young, you want to go out and see the wider world. As you get older, you start to see that some of the most exotic stuff happens right down the street. As an artist, you start to understand that some of the most interesting things can be found just around the corner.”
That process of distilling his ideas has brought him full circle. “I’m thinking my next series will be called ‘Around the House,’” he says. “I’ll be shooting right here, in the laundry room. I won’t even have to leave the house!”