Is it decay, or is it transformation?: An interview with photographer David Grim
Pittsburgh photographer David Grim, who shot The Northside Chronicle’s April 2020 cover image, started taking pictures in his 20s with a Polaroid Land Camera. His street photography, he says, took off organically as a way for him to both capture what he saw on long, solitary walks and take a closer look at the residential areas surrounding him. In this interview with Grim, Northside Chronicle Managing Editor Ashlee Green finds out what draws the photographer to images of what he calls the “taint of humanity,” his more recent fixation on abandoned shopping malls, and what ultimately drives his work. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photo: David Grim’s photo, “Desolation Bus Stop,” was featured on the cover of The Northside Chronicle’s April 2020 edition.
The Northside Chronicle: You referred to your cover photo for the April 2020 edition of The Northside Chronicle as “Desolation Bus Stop.” Much of your work explores the themes of desolation, disrepair, and decay. What draws you to this type of photography?
David Grim: I think I’m drawn to this subject matter because I enjoy the sense of being by myself to explore and not be bothered. I am definitely interested in the way order breaks down in things: The textures of building materials as they warp and age can be fascinating. I like that these places have been touched by people for years and years, and yet those individuals made their mark, vanished, and left behind their patina. Maybe it’s the taint of humanity that I’m interested in.
NSC: Your style of photography ties in well with the way a lot of people are feeling right now due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Do you see a connection between what’s going on in front of your lens and with the attitudes of people in the Northside and the world at large at this time?
DG: Maybe people are seeing the world the way I have preferred to display it for years. There are no people in the vast majority of my shots, but [people] have all left something behind that is visible. I guess those leavings are akin to the shedding of a disease, if one tends to take a dark look at things. I find blight and entropy oddly compelling. Who is to say whether something has “decayed” or merely transformed?
NSC: Many of your photographs are centered around Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Have you always lived here?
DG: I’ve been in Pittsburgh since I came here from Eastern Pennsylvania for my undergrad studies, and for a long time I never made it out of Oakland. The street photography I’ve been doing for a while now started organically. I found myself taking long solitary walks, and eventually I just wanted to capture the sense of some of what I saw. Then, I decided I wanted to examine all the places people lived around me. I feel that most people never quite realize how circumscribed their daily lives are by routines. You might drive through a few neighborhoods every day, but can you even consider yourself knowledgeable about what it might be like to exist in those places? And those are just the places that you happen through. Think about all the streets in Pittsburgh you have never walked down. Think about all the places you’ve walked through but never really looked closely at. It’s mind-bending.
NSC: How long have you been a photographer? How did you get your start?
DG: I had a Polaroid Land Camera back in my 20s. I’d run around and snap a pic here and there, but the cost of the outdated film was prohibitive. When I hit 30, I wanted to shoot video, but the technology was still so expensive. I decided I’d buy a camera, take some stills, and learn what I could visually while the price of that digital tech dropped. I’d mostly shoot around my friends, and they liked what they saw and encouraged me to show my photos at the Southside Beehive. This was 2004. From there, I ended up doing some gallery shows and engaged that whole scene for awhile. Shows got expensive after awhile, and the rewards really didn’t match the effort. Over the last 10 years or so, I’ve mostly been just making work and posting it online. Maybe I’ll feel like doing shows again if art events ever really return after the great COVID lockdown.
NSC: You referred to one of your recent photographic interests of the moment as an “obsession.” Is that what it feels like: Themes that you’re so devoted to that you become fixated on them?
DG: I do end up diving deeply into whatever subject matter catches my interest. After I went around and explored all of the neighborhoods in Pittsburgh—I never quite realized how many and how distinctive they are—I started in on Cleveland. I really did become obsessed with that city. I really do love it there. Then, a year or so ago, I got really interested in pinball and went around shooting details of the playfields of various games. Sure, “obsession” fits, I guess.
NSC: Your most recent obsession, before the shutdown, was dying malls. What are some of your favorite aspects of this series?
The dying malls fixation is fairly recent. I just started delving into them last fall. We are extraordinarily lucky to have a lot of them in this region. For some reason, the Rust Belt cities loved their malls, and even with several closing recently—the Century III Mall prominently among them—there are still some hanging on at this late date in the “Retail Apocalypse.” I like the vintage touches, and I’ll often try to highlight them in my shots: The fake plants, the tile floors, the skylights, and the styles of the storefronts all interest me. I am a bit sad that I came so late to this particular interest, and I fear that many of the places that I had in my sights to shoot are already gone forever, killed off by this pandemic. You can bet I’ll be heading off to catch some of them when this quarantine ends.
NSC: What will you explore next in your work? What else are you interested in?
DG: Besides more dying mall explorations, I am certain that I will continue to travel to neighborhoods and towns throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania and the Rust Belt: I like the exercise; I like the sense of exploration; I like being challenged visually and psychologically by these places. I think there is some value in preserving them in digital data form, so that people can see the places they don’t usually visit or wouldn’t even consider going. I explore the world through my camera. I never set out looking specifically for anything, and I let the light pull me where it wants, of course. I feel like I bear witness to things that would otherwise go unseen. I’m certain that this drives a lot of photographers; It feels natural. I suspect I’ll be doing it as long as I am able, and I will certainly continue keeping it local as well. I walk around my own small slice of Southwestern Pennsylvania at least once every week, and have posted a shot from the zip code where I live every day for over six years now.
NSC: Where can people find your work?