Beautiful Chaos: Inside the Domino Sugar Refinery Before It All Came Down

Photo: Paul Raphaelson

Long synonymous with the Williamsburg waterfront, the Domino Sugar Factory is now but a relic of the neighborhood’s industrial past. For Ditmas Park artist Paul Raphaelson, however, the building has long held a mystique as an alluring artistic playground. That’s why in 2013, he decided to venture inside Domino’s decaying factory floor to shoot photos of its looming ceilings and rusted metal catwalks.

“Domino had always been in the back of my mind,” he says, but notes that the factory conjures up many different feelings for different people. He thinks Domino is a symbol imbued with a distinct meaning for older generations who grew up in an America teeming with manufacturing businesses.

“When they see an abandoned factory, they see absence, they see loss, but we were never really familiar with this industrial greatness,” he says, invoking the days of the Domino’s prominence, a time period spanning both the 19th and 20th centuries.

The greatness that Raphaelson talks about is manifested in the factory’s sheer vastness and sprawling metallic infrastructure, which wove and bent toward Domino’s ceiling and plentiful windows.

“The spaces are enormous and they really are humbling in their scale. They have almost this loftiness of a cathedral in many parts of the refinery,” he says.

And Raphaelson’s photos do justice to his sentiment. His images, which will all be compiled into a forthcoming photo-book called Sweet Ruin that he’s trying to fund via Kickstarter, speak of a certain atypical order among the abandoned metal tubes and grimy wires. The photos manage to contain all the blighted concrete, gauges, buttons, pipes and knobs in one chaotic setting, while at the same time incorporating abundant sunlight or careful editing to convey calm.

Photo: Paul Raphaelson

Gaining access to Domino in order to shoot his photos was an ordeal, Raphaelson admits, and something that took him over a year to accomplish. He first contacted Two Trees Management, the Brooklyn real estate firm that acquired Domino in 2012, asking if he could take his camera into the abandoned factory that year. He continued to email them for another year before he got a response, and eventually convinced them that his book idea was worthwhile. Two Trees granted Raphaelson just five days for his project–barely enough time to explore the factory on a cohesive scale.

What he came away with is quite impressive, though. Each photo, which range from desolate locker rooms scenes to expansive shots of the airplane hanger-sized refinery, shows the factory in a state of neglect and gradual erosion. Everything from Domino’s file cabinets to its two-story sized refining machines had gone basically untouched for over a decade when Raphaelson took his photos.

But the decay isn’t necessarily the point of Raphaelson’s work. He wants to shy away from the pejorative “ruin porn” term that gets heaped on docu-photography taken in the American rustbelt, especially in Detroit. “This work has been characterized as dancing on graves, almost a kind of schadenfreude,” he says, explaining how fetishizing chaos is something he’d like to avoid.

Rather, his focus is the history of Domino, and what it meant–and still does mean–to those who earned their livelihood there.

“I look around and I think that not many years ago, someone knew what all this stuff did–all these buttons and gauges and bells and machines–there were people running this stuff. This is real knowledge and people’s livelihoods. Now [walking through Domino], it’s like being on an archaeological site on another planet,” he says.

Raphaelson wants to add historical color to his project, and has been seeking out former Domino employees to glean a sense of what working life was like there. While many workers have been reticent or at least a little skeptical of his intentions, Raphaelson has learned that Domino employees “were from all over the world… people from an incredible number of countries, people from every ethnicity and from every account that I’ve heard, people got along really well,” he says.

When asked what Domino represents in a general sense, Raphaelson admits that the factory has maintained a wealth of various meanings, many of which continue to morph and change over time.

“I think if you talk to people in their sixties it represents great loss, if you talk to young people in Brooklyn, they see it more as a visual icon, and it’s going to represent a different kind of nostalgia for them,” he says.

Donate to Paul Raphaelson’s Kickstarter here. 

Follow Sam Blum on Twitter @Blumnessmonser 

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Too bad the employees went out on strike and refused the offer management presented. If they’d taken the deal they were offered, they’d have had several more years of work.

    The same kind of genius inspired the workers at the Stella d’Oro cookie factory in the Bronx.

    • I don’t know, David. The biggest strikes were about hanging onto contract terms they already had. Management was trying to squeeze them for everything.

      But bigger picture, they were going to close this refinery no matter what, regardless of labor. With competition from beet sugar and corn sugar, there was no way this century-old behemoth could compete. During it’s last many years, it wasn’t even refining sugar; just packaging sugar that was already refined in Baltimore.

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