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Urban Decay : Winston-Salem’s Hidden Beauty

Photo: Ryan Gustman

Arts & Culture

Urban Decay : Winston-Salem’s Hidden Beauty

Some people get into photography because they want to capture the beauty of the natural world or enjoy documenting the special moments in people’s lives.  Ryan Gustman has a different answer – solitude.

I do fine with quiet,” says Gustman, 25, ofWinston-Salem, “it is literally what I do.”  In the past few years, he has taken a penchant for solo explorations and turned it into art.  “I still don’t think I’m an artist,” says Gustman, but everyone who sees his works would disagree.

Gustman documents the hidden side of the city, capturing the urban decay hidden in plain sight.  It started a few years ago with an open door at Plant 60, a former R. J. Reynolds building now renovated as part of Wake Forest Innovation Quarter.  “I just like old and abandoned things,” says Gustman, “it’s not about being edgy or breaking the law, it’s wondering what’s hiding in there.

What’s hiding is peeling paint and layers of dust, fallen ceilings and forgotten office supplies.  Working with the natural light at hand, Gustman takes snapshots of the present that show the past.  As Winston-Salem rediscovers and renovates its downtown, these pictures are a link to what was and what will be.

For someone who never saw himself as a serious photographer, Gustman has gotten some serious attention.  He had his first gallery show at the Ember Gallery in April and is often on display at Center City Frame Shop during First Friday Gallery Hops.  There have been collaborations with Artworks Gallery and Sawtooth School for Visual Art.  A documentary filmmaker, Brian Mezerski, did a short film on Gustman’s work entitled “Winston’s Ghost”, and he spoke on “Charlotte Talks” for WFAE, an NPR affiliate station.  The Charlotte chief of police was on the same episode – completely by coincidence, as Gustman has managed to avoid any legal issues during his journeys.

While he has avoided legal troubles, he has managed to find himself in a few sticky physical situations, from falls to areas with barely any air to getting lost for 13 hours, and he treks with a full safety kit.  “You’ve got to remember where you’re going,” says Gustman, “you can’t just decide you want to explore an abandoned building and go in with only a phone.

It is clear from his work that Gustman respects both the potential danger of these buildings and what they have to offer and teach.  It is interesting to note that he is on the autism spectrum, high-functioning, yet still often uncomfortable interacting with people.  This may be why the buildings speak to him and show him their secrets.

Gustman posts his photography on Instagram, Flickr, and Imgur.

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Ann Davis-Rowe is a native Pennsylvanian, former resident of Washington, D.C., and now proud to live, work, and play in downtown Winston-Salem. An admin by day and musical theatre performer by night, she really wants to be a librarian when she grows up. When not eating and/or watching TV on the couch with her husband and their corgimutts, she can usually be found pretending to exercise and avoiding cilantro.

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