Daniel Traub’s photographs of vacant lots have their genesis in his teenage years. In the mid-1980s, Traub would tag along as his mother, artist Lily Yeh, worked with residents of an economically impoverished neighborhood in North Philadelphia (Traub’s family lived in affluent Center City) to transform vacant lots into sculpture gardens and other attractive spaces. “The tactile process of reshaping the neighborhood’s broken tiles, fallen bricks, and debris into new forms was compelling,” he says. “As a teenager, I felt a naïve excitement that the collapsed structures and abandoned spaces could be renewed and that, perhaps, the injustice of the ghetto could be addressed or mitigated through art.”

Chinese takeout restaurant. Photo by Daniel Traub.More than 20 years later, Traub returned to the neighborhood he’d come to know as a teenager. Again, he was captivated by vacant lots, but this time he approached them with a photographer’s eye, focused on the lots just as they were. In this sense his impulse was documentary. And yet his formally composed images (Traub used a large format camera), in which the lots are framed by the blank walls of decaying rowhouses, also take us beyond what is actually there. Positioned directly in front of the lots, and drawn in by the vanishing lines of one-point perspective, we’re apt to perceive them as Traub sometimes did from the street: as “entryways into another world.”

Traub had recently spent ten years in China exploring his heritage—he is half Chinese—and documenting, among other things, the lives of Beijing’s migrant workers. As he photographed the vacant lots in North Philadelphia, he couldn’t help being attuned as well to the area’s numerous Chinese takeout restaurants. “While commonplace, they revealed a complex narrative between the African American and Chinese communities,” he says. “Locals seemed to resent the Chinese as outsiders who barricaded themselves behind thick sheets of bulletproof plastic. The Chinese—mostly migrants from small provincial towns in southern China—appeared like stranded interlopers in a remote foreign outpost, waiting to go home.”

At night, these takeout joints, most of them corner stores in two-story buildings, look even more like foreign outposts, self-contained except for the fluorescence spilling out from their interiors onto the sidewalk. In several of these images, the sense of dislocation is subtly heightened by out-of-kilter time-keeping: traffic signals that are simultaneously red and green, or red and yellow—a result of long exposures that also capture people in a ghostly in-between state: there and yet not there.

Traub would end up taking photos of vacant lots and Chinese restaurants all over Philadelphia; the images shown here are from around the city. Several of them appear in his new monograph, North Philadelphia, a sensitive portrait of that neighborhood, including its people, homes, churches, and street corners.

Quotes come from North Philadelphia (Kehrer Verlag, 2014).

Introduction by Nancy Geyer, ARTerrain Editor


Daniel TraubAbout Daniel Traub

Daniel Traub is a Brooklyn-based photographer and filmmaker. His photographs have been exhibited internationally, including solo shows at the Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago and the Print Center in Philadelphia, and are in public and private collections such as the Margulies Collection at the Warehouse and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. His work has appeared in Aperture, European Photography, and The New York Times Magazine.

Find more of Daniel’s work at and


Gallery 1 | Vacant Lots
By Daniel Traub

All images in this gallery copyright Daniel Traub; images may not be copied or otherwise used without express written consent of the artist. Click image to view in larger size or to begin slideshow:

Gallery 2 | Chinese Takeouts
By Daniel Traub

All images in this gallery copyright Daniel Traub; images may not be copied or otherwise used without express written consent of the artist. Click image to view in larger size or to begin slideshow:

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One Response

  1. Barrie-Lee

    I’ve been waiting for someone to take photos of empty spaces, and empty lots speak to the heart of loss, and the sense of powerlessness we feel today, walking Detroit, or Cleveland, of Buffalo. Since not yet acquiring the book, I can only imagine its beautiful emptiness. Thank you for making it.


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