FLORENCE: Photographer’s exhibit documents urban decay at mill

by Natalie Lescroart, Staff Writer
   Growing up in Bordentown, Barbara Gilmer would frequently pass by Roebling’s former steel mill site on her way to her grandmother’s house in Burlington Township.
   The mill, run by the John A. Roebling’s Sons Co., had manufactured the steel cables used to support both the Golden Gate Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge. After the mill’s closure in 1974 however, Florence Township found itself with 200 acres of frozen history.
   The site’s architecture and its haunting sense of abandonment immediately attracted Ms. Gilmer’s photographic eye, and she was not about to stay outside the gated walls.
   A security guard had given Ms. Gilmer a phone number she could call to ask permission for entrance to take some photographs, but her proposition was not well received. The New York-based owners of the land and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which was responsible for the ongoing cleanup of the site, felt that it would be unsafe for Ms. Gilmer to enter into the mill and denied her request.
   After nearly a year of deliberation, Ms. Gilmer decided to take matters into her own hands. Armed with a Nikon camera, she fearlessly entered the site through a hole in the fence, snuck through one of the creaky doors, and became the steel mill’s phantom photographer.
   ”It wasn’t exactly a safe thing to do,” Ms. Gilmer admitted.
   Still, she vowed not to be deterred in her artistic efforts — so long as her husband promised to bail her out of jail in the case of her getting caught.
   Between 1997 and 2003, Ms. Gilmer entered the mill site four separate times without dilemma. Despite the fact much of the machinery had already been removed by the time she visited, Ms. Gilmer said she could still perfectly envision the bustling activity that once took place in the building.
   ”The workers just up and left,” she said. “The boots were still in the lockers. It was as if history stood still.”
   She recalled the anticipation she felt every time she turned a corner to find another provocative supply of photo subjects. One of the buildings she entered, for example, housed a carpenter shop in which she remembered opening lockers to find magazines and snack wrappers. These little details, she said, made her feel as if she were herself living the history of the steel mill.
   Ms. Gilmer watched as the site aged and deteriorated, noticing a few distinct changes over the years. A small house, she remembered, had sheltered the still-shiny trains from the elements in 1997. But, by 2003, the train cars had accumulated large amounts of rust. The authorities had torn down the house after deeming it to be unstable and unfixable, and left the train cars outside without protection.
   A little rust, scattered trash, and assorted cracks and holes never hurt a good photographer though. Ms. Gilmer recalled that the mill’s aging quality infused her pictures with history, giving them life and character.
   ”The way the sun comes in the broken windows in the early morning made the building light up as if it had electricity on,” she said.
   After each visit, Mr. Gilmer would bring her camera to a one-hour photo shop and wait in the parking lot to sift through the photos with a cup of coffee.
   ”Before you know it, I had a collection,” she said.
   In 2004, Ms. Gilmer displayed her clandestine collection at the Occasion in the Park. Don Jones, who attended the event, loved Ms. Gilmer’s photos and invited her to put together an exhibit in celebration of the Roebling Museum’s opening in June. An ecstatic Ms. Gilmer worked together with Mr. Jones to select 15 photos for the “Epilogue” exhibit, which was displayed on June 26 and 27 and will be displayed again this Saturday and Sunday at the mill’s former main gate building on Second Avenue.
   Ms. Gilmer, 44, never went to school for photography. Living in Wrightstown, she now works as a nurse’s aide. Nevertheless, Ms. Gilmer continues to sneak around with her camera, hoping to commemorate and photograph history.
   ”When there’s something historic that’s going to be torn down, that’s when I sneak in. My passion is trying to save the history that is here,” she said. “I don’t just recklessly go in a building and say ‘forget you,’ but I’ll ask and, if it doesn’t work out, I’ll say ‘Ok then, I’ll try.”
   In addition to her pictures from the steel mill, Ms. Gilmer has put together a collection of photographs taken from the old Hunt’s Circus fairgrounds. Very pleased with the outcome of her first showing, Ms. Gilmer hopes to create a Web site featuring her portfolio and show her work in other local museums in the future.