A decade and a half ago, photographer Ben Marcin hiked—not hitchhiked—from Baltimore to Philadelphia, traversing as many remote farms and wooded areas as possible along the way. He estimates he’s completed more than 5,600 hikes, two each weekend, one mid-week, give or take, for the past 40 years, mostly in the counties surrounding Baltimore. But his meanderings also include far-flung places like Guatemala’s Mayan highlands, rural Mexico, India, and Montenegro. His first pilgrimage, at four years old, began at the kitchen door of his family’s house in the small German town where he was born. “I crossed over the railroad tracks, cut through a cornfield, went through some woods, and walked into town where I asked a traffic cop at an intersection to get my Dad,” he recalls with a laugh. “I was out of gas and wasn’t sure how to get home.”
Since earning an economics degree from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, he’s held down a job at the Social Security Administration for the past three decades, but he’s always had this other side, the solo expeditioner part, that is also linked to an artistic impulse.
He tried watercolor painting initially—“Looks easy but it’s not,” he says—and didn’t buy his first camera until he was 27. Like many people, the first photos he took tended to be travel pictures from exotic destinations. Later, self-taught, he began playing with color and infrared images and eventually had three shows at Hampden’s Gomez Gallery, which closed in 2003.
He’s now 55, and although his hair has grayed, he remains as fit, restless, and curious as ever. Over the years, however, his photography has turned closer to home, more inward, “to stories,” as he puts it. Begun in 2010, his series, Last House Standing—large-scale portraits of literally the last row house standing on different city blocks, often no more than two miles from his own Bolton Hill row home—is garnering the first international attention of his career, with reviews from the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, and China, not to mention cultural observers like The Paris Review, Slate, and Wired. The stark, unsentimental photos manage to reveal both the decay and ghostly beauty of some of Baltimore’s iconic row houses and their fading environs.
“Monuments,” Marcin calls the withered, three-story, last turn-of-the-century row houses, “to dead neighborhoods.”
irony isn’t lost on me,” he adds. “All the traveling I’ve done, and, in
the end, what I find most compelling has been right here all along.”
In many ways, Marcin’s Last House Standing photographs are more remarkable for what they leave out than for what they show. There are no cars out in front of the homes in the barren streets and, except for the odd air-conditioning unit or bed sheet in an upstairs window, few signs of life, if any, can be seen in the pictures. Some of the homes clearly appear to be vacant, boarded up at least, but not all.
There are no leaves on the trees nearby, no clouds or sunshine in the backdrop, just overcast, dull skies in nearly every photograph. There is rarely even a street sign or lamppost in the frame, and there are no people. But the most obvious things missing are the neighboring homes—leaving the jarring juxtaposition of a house that is 15 feet wide and 40 feet tall standing by itself in an empty lot. “No engineer or architect would design a structure like that,” says Marcin, who moved to the U.S. when he was 10. “They were meant to be attached to something else.”
Inevitably, viewers begin to consider the ages of these homes and the lives of those who once inhabited these odd, solitary structures, suddenly alone in the middle of once-thriving residential blocks. “A hundred people, generations of families, likely lived in these houses over the course of their lives, especially as they were divided into apartments,” says Marcin, staring at a towering Mosher Street row house with an outline of brick remnants from its former next-door neighbor still affixed to an exterior wall. Outside another, similar but still-inhabited home, a different question arises for Marcin during a recent shooting trip: “What is it about the person who still lives here, the last person on their block, that made them defiant enough to stay when everyone else left?”
Austere and self-possessed, the pictures are also sobering images of urban disintegration.
“Certainly, the photographs are social and political statements, particularly for what has and is happening in Baltimore,” says Constantine Grimaldis, who in 1977 opened the prominent North Charles Street gallery which bears his name and hosted a Last House Standing exhibition earlier this year. “They are also very good photographs, very good art, and the composition goes to that. He’s interested in all of that [the fine art aspects], but he’s also intensely interested in life, and that comes through in his work.”
Grimaldis adds that photos like Marcin’s may look deceptively simple at a glance, “but like all art,” he says, “it doesn’t just happen in front of you.
“It takes time to do the work and, at the same time, derive the meaning from it during the process,” Grimaldis says. “In Ben’s case, it also took time to find these places.”
Marcin, not surprisingly, stumbled across his first “last house standing” in 2010, during a lunchtime bike trek from Social Security Administration headquarters in Woodlawn back into the city. As always, compelled to explore the unfamiliar, he found himself in some of the struggling neighborhoods of West Baltimore. (While acknowledging the need to take safety precautions during his shooting trips, he jokes that he’s more afraid that his wife, Lynn, whom he met when she was the curator at the Gomez Gallery, will at some point organize an intervention and put a stop to his wanderings. He’s never had any problems during his current project, but over the years has had warning shots fired over his head by farmers and was once robbed in Mexico by a police officer.)