When Trump won the election, photographer Brian Rose made straight for the gambling town – to show the reality behind his billionaire boasts. The broken city he captured speaks volumes about today’s America
When photographer Brian Rose arrived in the city in 2016, the bankrupt Taj was practically empty. His images of the building’s exterior look eerily quiet, as if all its workers had left in a sudden hurry, with what was once a thriving casino now unkempt and surrounded by damaged sand dunes. He photographed a family of stray cats nesting in a spot where gamblers might once have collapsed in a drunken stupor.
When Donald Trump opened the towering Trump Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City in March 1990, he declared it “the eighth wonder of the world” and joined in the celebrations at a launch ceremony filled with portly actors dressed as genies brandishing tacky golden lamps. Even though it was purchased with almost $700m worth of junk bonds – which meant the Taj had to come up with $94m a year just to pay off its debts, and $1m a day to be profitable – Trump insisted the casino would make Atlantic City great again, returning the area to its prohibition-era glory days.
One such place is the grounds of the Taj, where an elephant has the Trump name emblazoned below its feet. This flashy monument was created by sculptor Michael MacLeod, who was never paid for his work. Rose believes the elephant, which remained at the site when he visited in 2016 because it was too heavy to move, is a great metaphor for Trump’s own legacy in Atlantic City: “Making a lot of noise and stomping his weight around, but ultimately only leaving a trail of destruction.”
“I actually went back two weeks ago and they still haven’t closed off that HR entrance,” says Rose. “The smiling employees are still there, but Trump’s name has been scraped off, which I guess is telling. He’s tried to have his name removed from all his abandoned buildings here, but it’s still there if you look hard enough.”
Sign up to the Art Weekly email
The failure of the now president’s five Atlantic City businesses resulted in thousands of job losses and put dozens of local contractors out of business because they were, much like the elephant sculptor, unpaid.
Yet, during his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump boasted of how he took “incredible” amounts of money out of Atlantic City, borrowing cash from third parties so his own wealth wasn’t affected by his various businesses going under. According to Rose, his legacy is best reflected by Atlantic City’s 7.4% unemployment rate – nearly double the national average. “When Trump failed with his casinos,” says Rose, “he turned Atlantic City into a ghost town. His legacy still haunts the boardwalk.”
“Never take anything for granted,” says Rose. “It is all going to change. The Berlin Wall was seen as permanent. People couldn’t believe the Twin Towers would ever come down. As a photographer, that means you have to pay attention to what is out there now. It may seem like it isn’t worth photographing, but it might be gone tomorrow.”
Rose’s photographs have always focused on a society looking to rebuild, with bold buildings at their core. Previous work captured the collapse of the Berlin Wall as well as Manhattan’s lower east side in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. In these photographs, the buildings almost feel like characters in their own right: it’s as if they’re more reliable witnesses, since they’re unable to lie or hide behind a mask.
When Trump was elected in 2016, Rose knew instantly that he had to go to Atlantic City: “Trump is the ultimate portrayal of this successful American billionaire. People get taken in, but the failure of Atlantic City shows the reality behind the boasts.”
The fact that Atlantic City is freezing cold for at least two thirds of the year doesn’t help
“Tourists,” he says, “go to Atlantic City, go straight into their hotel and the casino, and then they don’t leave, which means the town outside is very isolated and dangerous, with the casinos cannibalising all the local businesses. Drug use and crime is so high, and this is something we see in other American cities, too, like Baltimore and Cleveland, where a commercial centre dwarfs the rest of the society.”
The resulting book, Atlantic City, contains a foreword by Pulitzer prize-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger. “Bleakness,” he says, “forms the constant theme of these images, a sense of emptiness and an utter lack of urbanity.” The book is full of dystopian imagery, with Trump’s failed casinos looking as if they could be part of a Blade Runner movie. But Rose insists this work goes beyond the “aesthetic of an abandoned amusement park”, believing it says just as much about America in 2019. He believes there are Atlantic Citys all across the country.
Rose recalls seeing one highly unexpected sight in Atlantic City: “When I was taking photos of the casinos, I saw two women in Maga hats. They live in a place that Trump helped ruin, yet still believe in him. I found that extraordinary.”
It would be unfair, however, to put the blame solely on the 45th president of the United States. One of the reasons Atlantic City’s gambling industry started to fail was because the New Jersey town was no longer the only major draw on the eastern seaboard, with Pennsylvania and Connecticut offering attractive alternatives. The fact that the coast is freezing cold for at least two thirds of the year also makes it a grey and isolated place.
In the roaring 20s, Atlantic City was the place to be. With prohibition largely unenforced, the city’s famous boardwalk was teeming with hedonists on a weekend away, ordinary Joes, politicians and the mafia all hitting the casinos and brothels together. There has been plenty of talk about revitalising the area and helping it regain its nickname of “the world’s playground”. Officials are even hopeful the Hard Rock Cafe’s $500m makeover of Trump’s Taj casino can bring in more tourists. Rose, however, finds it difficult to imagine a time when the area won’t be in decay, forever chasing the shadows of its past.
Nor were Trump’s the only casinos to close. The gigantic Revel, now known as the Ocean Resort Casino, was another expensive failure. One of the book’s best photographs shows two wooden houses dwarfed by the Revel’s flank as an American flag flaps off to the side. The building feels monstrous, uncaring or unaware of its tiny neighbours, a symbol of capitalism’s empty conscience.
“It looks like the end of the world to me,” says Rose. “It looks like the death of the American dream. The Revel is this surreal modernist glass world. When you go inside it, it’s like you’re in a utopia, but a totally empty utopia, bar a few old people on the slot machines. It reminds me of that Talking Heads lyric, ‘Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.’”