Introduction by Brian Rose
On Election Day 2016, when the late night returns affirmed a slender Electoral College majority for Donald Trump, I was devastated by the prospect of his presidency and troubled by the sudden realization that many of my assumptions about American society were wrong. Not that I was under any illusions about the existence of deep strains of nativism and racism within the body politic. But clearly, I had underestimated the dimension of those elements and misapprehended as well the nihilistic urge that drove a large segment of the public to vote for someone like Trump.
As an artist and photographer I felt compelled to respond in some meaningful way. Most of my projects over the years have dealt with long-term urban transformation and the investigation of place, but I felt this time I needed to work more urgently—and operate with a more politically engaged agenda, one that would directly address this pivotal moment in history.
Almost immediately I seized on the idea of photographing Atlantic City, the most tangible example of Donald Trump’s business failures. A few days later I rented a car and made the two-hour drive down the shore from New York and began photographing along the boardwalk where four of Atlantic City’s dozen casino hotels stood abandoned. Two of them, the Trump Plaza and the Trump Taj Mahal, loomed as bleak totems of the President-Elect’s recent legacy. Surveying the surrounding urban landscape, I encountered a tattered but richly historic city reeling from the disastrous actions of politicians and vulture capitalists like Trump and his friend Carl Icahn.
It did not take much imagination to see Atlantic City with its extreme juxtaposition of wealth and poverty as a metaphor for much of what was going on in the country as a whole. The casino hotels tower above row houses and shops like the old steel mills of the nation’s heartland. Where the factories of the past once forged the raw goods that fed the might and power of a great nation, the massive casinos of Atlantic City represent the industrialization of tourism and the exploitation of the shrinking hopes and dreams of the American middle class.
Atlantic City from its inception was a resort city. And early on, this playground-by-the-sea offered family sun and fun as well as more licentious pastimes. Atlantic City flourished during Prohibition with its nightclubs, prostitution, and gambling. The filmmaker Martin Scorsese once said, “During Prohibition, Atlantic City created the idea of the speakeasy, which turned into nightclubs and that extraordinary political complexity and corruption coming out of New Jersey at the time. The long hand that they had—and maybe still do—even had to do with presidential elections.”
It did not take much imagination to see Atlantic City with its extreme juxtaposition of wealth and poverty as a metaphor for much of what was going on in the country as a whole.
In the 1950s America became more mobile. Automobiles and freeways spurred the development of the suburbs, and one no longer needed a train to reach Atlantic City or any number of other vacation attractions. When the Democratic Party held its national convention in Atlantic City in 1964 the delegates discovered a city in steep decline, a tawdry resort with street crime and decaying hotels. Casino gambling beckoned as a panacea for Atlantic City’s woes and its promoters conjured a glittering New Jersey version of Monaco. That’s not exactly how it turned out, though for a while Atlantic City prospered as the only gambling destination on the East Coast.
Casinos were the perfect solution for generating cash and for enhancing Donald Trump’s well-cultivated reputation as a playboy billionaire. Somehow, however, Trump could not make money on his casinos—at least not in the conventional sense of turning a profit. He went bankrupt five times in Atlantic City, and the banks stopped loaning him money. Meanwhile, the Trump Taj Mahal became a favorite retreat of Russian oligarchs and the Brighton Beach mob. I was thinking about that fact one moody winter day as I walked with my camera on the beach opposite the now closed Taj. I looked down at my feet and picked up a cigarette pack lying in the sand—it was covered with Cyrillic letters.
Another day, walking along Pennsylvania Avenue, I came across the former Trump human resources office. Images of happy, smiling employees were still plastered on the windows while a dead seagull lay on the pavement beneath. And then, to my astonishment, a group of women came by carrying Make America Great Again signs. Here at the epicenter of Trump’s business dissolution, at the nexus of Russian dirty money and the fleecing of gullible gamblers, there were, apparently, true believers.
As the project developed, I did a great deal of research and began collecting quotes that supported my pictures. I discovered that Trump had tweeted repeatedly about Atlantic City. There are 16 tweets in my book, Atlantic City, the culmination of my project, in which he disavows any responsibility for what happened to his casinos and the city, and he complains incessantly that no one gives him credit for making a fortune and getting out at just the right time. “Did you notice, when I left, it went to hell!”
There is, in the end, something dangerously seductive about Atlantic City. People come to the city for a lot of reasons, but I think it is fair to say that many come to gamble knowing they will lose. They know the odds are with the house, that the game literally is rigged. And yet they play on in the hopes that lightning will strike. I photographed a number of the vast garages that feed cars and gamblers directly into the casinos. People frequently throw themselves off of these parking structures in despair.
Atlantic City’s cover photograph encapsulates the stark reality of this place. Against the backdrop of the Revel Casino’s glass and stone wall, two small houses, vestiges of a bygone Atlantic City, slump precariously in a vacant lot. A tiny American flag flaps in the brisk sea breeze beneath an illusory sky.
Images in this gallery may not be copied or otherwise used without express written consent of the artist. Click image to view in larger size:
– Brian Rose
The closure of the sprawling Boardwalk casino, with its soaring domes, minarets and towers built to mimic the famed Indian historic site, cost nearly 3,000 workers their jobs, bringing the total jobs lost by Atlantic City casino closings to 11,000 since 2014.
– Wayne Parry
October 10, 2016
– Arielle Brousse
The Washington Post
October 6, 2016
March 7, 2017
Giving a slide presentation of his work to an architectural firm two days after Trump swept the New York Republican primary in April, he slipped in two photos—one showing one of the elephants, the other showing Trump’s name on the casino marquee in red lights.
“This guy never paid me,” MacLeod deadpanned. Everyone laughed.
– Bernard Condon
June 28, 2016
– Brian Rose
– Christopher Palmeri
January 8, 2018
– Brian Rose
(Philipp) Kirkorov, who represented Russia at Eurovision in 1995, first met Trump in 1994 when Kirkorov and his now ex-wife and Russia’s 1997 Eurovision singer Alla Pugacheva performed at the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City.
– Robyn Gallagher
September 7, 2016
– Michael Edison Hayden
May 4, 2016
– Brian Rose
– Brian Rose
– Matt Katz
August 26, 2015
– Brian Rose
– Nick Paumgarten
The New Yorker
September 7, 2015
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City
– Bruce Springsteen
– Joshua Cohen
About the Artist
Brian Rose attended Cooper Union in New York City where he studied with Joel Meyerowitz, one of the pioneers of color photography. In 1980, Rose and fellow Cooper graduate Edward Fausty photographed the Lower East Side of Manhattan over the course of a year. They worked with a 4×5 view camera, and that project established Rose’s approach to photographing the urban landscape. In 1985 Rose began documenting the Iron Curtain border and the Berlin Wall, making several trips across Europe. In 1989 he returned to Berlin shortly after the opening of the Wall, and he has continued to photograph the former border zone in Berlin up to the present. His book, The Lost Border: The Landscape of the Iron Curtain, was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2004.
Rose lived in Amsterdam in the Netherlands for 15 years while maintaining a studio in New York. He returned full-time to New York in 2008, and has since produced a trilogy of books that chronicle the passage of time in Lower Manhattan. And in 2016, in response to the election of Donald Trump, he began photographing the urban landscape of Atlantic City where Trump’s abandoned casinos hovered over a struggling city. Atlantic City was published in 2019 by Circa Press and was selected for a Jurors Award in the Los Angeles Center of Photography’s first annual Photo Book Competition. Rose has published seven books, and his images have been collected by the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Header photo by Brian Rose.