MASS MoCA Transition from Mill to Museum


MASS MoCA: photographs documenting the transition from abandoned mill to the sprawling Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

I began photographing the transition of MASS MoCA from mill to museum at the abandoned Sprague Electric plant in 1988.  The seemingly random collection of brick buildings was built as a textile mill during the 1800s at the confluence of the two branched of the Hoosac River.  Sprague Electric began a new chapter to the mills’ history in 1942 with the emerging field of electronics components.  My Dad worked for Sprague for 26 years.  I did too, on the graveyard shift in the summer of ’74.

Sprague closed in 1985.  By the late 1980s the plant was rotting and it’s future looked ominous.  Where once over 4000 thousand people had come to work, now only a couple of men tended watch.

Trips to photograph the plant were an expedition. I worked with a 4”x5” field camera and carried everything in order to be self contained and mobile.  The buildings are mostly interconnected, so once you were inside you could go anywhere.  Many areas were quite dark which made photography difficult because I only used available light.  The light is part of the place and the place is what I was documenting.  The early work was all in black and white, which seemed most appropriate, but as the space opened up more was revealed.  Color offered a more complete record.

Sprague Electric Company had broken the vast mill spaces into smaller work areas.  The grandeur of the place was obscured.  Chipping paint, broken glass, buckled floorboards were everywhere.  Most compelling was evidence of the individuals who had spent so much of their lives within these walls.  It manifested itself in different, sometimes unexpected ways. There were discarded identification badges and personal effects like coffee cups and well-worn chairs. There was scrawl on the walls, numbers by the phone, and conversions from minutes to tenths of an hour by the punch clocks.  The humanity of this place of industry was revealed in these details.

I collected these vignettes, fully expecting the buildings to not survive.

But people of vision stepped in.  They reconfigured, repaired, and renovated. I documented this evolution.  Especially exciting was the emergence of the grand open mill spaces.  The wholesale removal of entire floors redoubled the effect.  Reclaimed windows brought light back to what had become a very dark place.  Where darkness and decay had once dominated, now light and space became the subjects of my photographs.

After the emergence of the gallery spaces came the installation of artwork, followed by the opening in May of 1999.

More of this series can be seen in:  MASS MoCA: From Mill to Museum  but it is out of print , so find a used one.

See the plant before MoCA in this book: After Sprague Electric / Before MASS MoCA