In Focus: 'Hindsight'

Toledo Local Features  |  By Kelly Thompson  |  08/16/2016 7:00 am

Photographer Ben Morales’ new book, Hindsight, isn’t just about Toledo. Really, it’s a book about the entire Rust Belt.

Toledo, like the rest of our Rust Belt cities, consistently has to brand, rebrand and explain itself, to combat negative attitudes about the economy, the landscape, and the visible towering, empty buildings that serve as shells of prosperity gone by. As a former Pittsburgh resident, I have to compare the two places, because PIttsburgh in particular was able to bring many neighborhoods together—and in turn revitalize parts of the city—by putting its history in the spotlight. Visual art, photography, and even an extensive documentary series helped residents take pride, and “ownership,” as Morales called it, in their own city, and this is exactly what Hindsight does.

Since 2013, Morales has been recreating old photos (i.e.: Fire Station #17, above right), focusing on historic buildings in our downtown area. They say a picture tells a thousand words, and for him, it’s probably even more than that. I talked with Ben about his new book, his process, and why this project will make a difference.

Hindsight is out this week, and talked to you about a similar project back in 2013. I assume the two are connected?

BM: When I talked to previously, I didn’t have the book in mind. The book kind of spun off, was an Instagram thing, I didn’t really have an angle. I think it was shortly after I did a TEDxTalk on the project, which was previously called my Toledo Rephotography series, and I changed it to ‘Hindsight’ once this book came about. Someone on the staff of the University of Toledo Press saw the TED talk I presented, and thought it would be an interesting idea for a book, and that’s how it all started.

(View Ben's TEDxTalk)

So the book was initiated by the press, not the other way around. That’s interesting.

Yes. The theme that year for the TED event was ‘Reimagining Toledo,’ so Will Lucas thought that this whole series aligned with that subject pretty well, and gave a different perspective on the city.

Can you explain a little bit about the process of going from an Instagram project to a book?

BM: For the Instagram project, I didn’t really have any parameters or anything in mind. It was just something I felt resonated a lot with the local community at first, and I was getting a lot of encouragement on social media. It was just something I tried to sustain over the years, and something I did in my free time. So it was difficult to maintain at times; sometimes I’d post once a month, sometimes once a week. And of course, in the wintertime, it was difficult (laughs). Once the idea came about, I put the pedal to the floor a little bit and tried to focus a little more, get as many locations as I could. Especially the last year; I’ve been really proactive about finding the photos, finding the right locations, and finding the time. Right now I’m freelancing full-time, but up until January I was working full-time at an agency. Freelancing has definitely been beneficial to this project, just because it’s given me a lot of flexibility. I’m able to control those parameters a little better.

Did you encounter obstacles or challenges while you were doing this project? 

BM: Yes, absolutely. I’m not sure how the viewer perceives how these things are done, but I tried to use all natural lighting, so the time of day and the time that the original photographer took these photos—I had to take careful notes about the best time of day to get those photographs with good directional and natural lighting. I also had to keep in mind the condition of the location; and find out if the building is even standing (laughs). I’ve gone to places all ready to go, and [the building] is not even there anymore. There’s the challenge of finding the photos through the public library and getting the high resolution photos scanned. There’s a lot of preparation that goes into each photo and each location. Sometimes it goes off without a hitch, and it takes five minutes or less. Other times, I have to go back repeatedly because the lighting isn’t right, or it’s overcast that day. But it’s all part of the process.

How did you make the decisions about which buildings or places you were going to include?

BM: The [Toledo] library has an online photo archive that I just love to search through and explore, and sometimes I would just randomly type in keywords. I’ll find a beautiful historical photo that, you know, I might not have noticed the actual location because it looks so different now. I try to go in that direction, hoping I’ll find a cool photograph. I may be walking downtown, and happen to come across a building that is interesting because of its architecture, or it looks beat up and abandoned, and I’ll search the archives for that particular address and see what I find. So there are a few ways I approach it.

Are you able to pinpoint a specific situation or circumstance—fine arts training, personal experience—that led you toward a fascination with historic buildings? It seems like such a specific niche.  

BM: I think I’ve always been interested in history, and old photos. I remember my favorite class in college was the History of Photography. I kind of fell in love. Old photos have this ghostly quality, a haunting feeling, that’s really difficult to replicate today. That’s always been in the back of my mind. I have a background in graphic design, so that has also fed into it; using historic photos in some of my projects, particularly the You Are Here project that we did several years ago for AIGA. My location for that project was the Washington Street bridge, that leads to Owens Corning. I wanted to kind of highlight the history of that bridge, and I found some really cool images from the 1930s of that bridge. And that’s what kind of opened the floodgates, because not only did I find images of that bridge, but I also found this archive of hundreds of other photographs, of Toledo. This place was completely different back then. I know that’s kind of common sense (laughs).

I think you’re right, though, that people need to be reminded that there’s much more to these buildings and places they pass every day.

Right. So that kind of led me into this obsession with Toledo’s history.

Were your locations based solely in the metro area?

BM: Well, I started downtown, because historic images of those properties were a little more accessible in the archives; there was just more material and information on them. Those were the most documented places, because they had more traffic. When the book deal came about, I had to consciously decide where my parameters would be, and I decided I wanted to include the surrounding areas, but keep it based in Northwest Ohio. Toledo is kind of the epicenter, and I wanted to keep in mind Maumee, Perrysburg, Waterville. So they’re in the book, too. I kind of have the chapters subdivided between downtown, the Warehouse District and Old West End, and other chapters that explore the North End, the Vistula District and the East End. Then some of the chapters are dedicated to the surrounding area.

Are you working on any future projects right now? 

BM: Related to this one?

Yes, or not?

BM: (laughs). I think right now I’m kind of at a resting point, where I’ve been working on this book for years, and I need a break. That said I am in talks with my editor on doing a part two, that focuses more on some of the surrounding suburbs. The idea for that one would be to have contributed photographs from people around the city—like, if they have a photo from the 1890s, they can send it in, and I’ll try to recreate it. The surrounding areas are actually older, because the settlers came in close to the river, so that makes for interesting possibilities.

Is there anything else our readers should know? 

Talking about Northwest Ohio, I just want to say that my hope for this book is to shine a light on the history of Toledo and the surrounding areas. It has such a rich history, and so much beauty to share, and I think people forget or simply don’t notice. Showing these areas, and Toledo’s past, is deeply beneficial, because it helps them appreciate it more, take ownership of their home. I hope people enjoy it, and get something inspirational out of it.

I think they will.

Order a copy of Hindsight at The University of Toledo Press, and look for it in local retailers this fall.