Phillip Buehler has spent the last 40 years documenting abandoned spaces. The photographer’s long-running series, titled “Modern Ruins,” has sent him snaking through the corridors of old psychiatric hospitals, scaling the skeletons of theme parks and traversing the remains of defunct power plants.
Each time, he discovers something unusual while researching the location’s history. Often it’s a link between the New Jersey native’s past and the place he’s capturing before his camera lens.
“Whenever I explore and then investigate a modern ruin, I make a personal connection at some point,” Buehler says. “In photographing ‘SS United States,’ the abandoned ocean liner, I learned that my grandparents had traveled on her in 1952 when going back to their home country of Germany seven years after the war. Or when I photographed an abandoned psychiatric hospital and discovered that a cousin of mine had once been a patient there.”
It required no research, however, for Buehler to locate a connection to the Wayne Hills Mall, the subject of his latest set of photographs. He remembered visiting the place during the 1970s and 1980s, when the megalithic structure was the nexus of social life for young teens growing up in nearby suburban enclaves. The mall’s death rattle, echoed across the country by traditional retailers losing a struggle with e-commerce, went silent after its demolition in February. Buehler, now seasoned at sneaking into old buildings, was able to creep in and document its final days.
“I experienced a wide range of emotions going in,” he recalls. “First, it was the trepidation of getting inside. Will I be caught before even getting in? But then there’s a huge sense of relief that turns into wonder and excitement. You have no idea what you’ll see around each corner. It was an unusually warm day, so all the ice on the floor had started to melt, creating all of these wonderful reflections.”
The show that resulted from that expedition, titled “Mallrats to Snapchat: The End of The Third Place,” is now running at Front Room Gallery in Manhattan through Jan. 12. At once, the presentation functions as a swan song for the mall culture of Buehler’s youth and a critique of the digital living rooms he believes replaced it.
His photos hum with an eerie nostalgia, revealing the remnants of bookstores and CD shops that once served as hotspots for previous generations. To add to the effect, Front Room has traded its usual silence for popular songs from what Buehler considers to be Wayne Hill’s glory days (for him, that’s circa 1973). It’s a successful addition, simulating the experience of walking through a mall with dystopian photographs standing in for storefronts.
“Gallery visitors can flip through albums, pick one out and play it on a vintage record player and then wander the gallery looking at the photos,” Buehler says, explaining the idea behind the exhibition soundtrack. “There’s nothing like music and photographs to stir the memories and the imagination.”
The exhibition title has similar aims, asking viewers to remember the mall’s place in the American psyche. In choosing “Mallrats,” Buehler references a pejorative sometimes thrust upon teens from his generation. The “Third Place,” meanwhile, finds its origins in the writings of urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg, who coined the term to describe public squares that tether a person to their community. Oldenburg’s examples for these spaces, including malls, churches and libraries, have all seen dwindling foot traffic in recent years. In some cases, that decline is expected to continue. As many as 25% of America’s malls are estimated to shutter within the next five years, according to recent studies.
And what happens if that statistic proves accurate? That continues to be debated on the very platforms that have, according to Buehler and others, usurped malls as the new public square. Across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Reddit, news of store closures is met with a mixture of nostalgic comments and derision. But Buehler seems unconcerned about the economic push-and-pull happening, at least in this show. Here, the focus is not the loss of a shopping experience, but the loss of the person-to-person communication that accompanied it.
“At the mall, you’d be among people from all walks of life,” he says. “Now, I don’t even see the Facebook feed from acquaintances who are from the other side of the political spectrum. The algorithm has decided not to share each other’s news feed if we don’t ‘like’ each other’s posts often.”
If a tour through the gallery stirs an appreciation for the communal spaces of yore, just as Buehler has long experienced while photographing them, then he’s clocking the show as a win.
“I thought,” he says, “that showing photographs of this dead mall alongside music from that time might refresh memories and lead to a recognition that we might be losing something important.”
“Mallrat to Snapchat: The End of the Third Place” runs through Jan. 12. Find out more information by visiting the gallery website.