Photographer Nadim Sabella documents his own disasters, real and imagined. | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Photographer Nadim Sabella documents his own disasters, real and imagined.

The housing crisis, global warming spark Boxheart Gallery show.

"In a Fog III," a photograph by Nadim Sabella
"In a Fog III," a photograph by Nadim Sabella

Photographer Nadim Sabella evokes human tragedy through a notable absence of human beings.

The German-born artist's show Little Disasters, at Boxheart Gallery, represents two distinct legs of his work, each inspired by a different global crisis. The first, collectively titled "For Victory," features the interiors of abandoned, mostly foreclosed-upon houses in the rural American Southwest. The second, "In a Fog," showcases Sabella's detailed models of buildings in his current home of San Francisco, placed in a basin full of water and draped in fog-emitting dry ice to show what they might look like after the ocean moves in on a tide of global warming.

Sabella, 34, indicates a room he photographed in an abandoned home in New Mexico, a majestic portrait of a deer still on the wall. "Somebody, at one point, fell in love with the deer or the idea of the deer. Then, he left it and the entire home," he says. "Look at the paint cracking on the walls. I saw that and knew it would have the narrative quality of a painting."

Sabella began documenting abandoned places while a student at the San Francisco Art Institute. During a school retreat in the Nevada desert, he noticed clusters of rusted, discarded cars sitting "like a sculpture garden," and photographed them. As the foreclosure crisis progressed, Sabella returned to isolated patches of the Southwest, asking townies to help him locate abandoned homes — a search that spoke to his longstanding interest in archeology. These images of scattered belongings and weed infestations make up his dissertation project.

"In a Fog" stretches Sabella's interest in "the point at which humans evacuate and nature takes over" into an epic speculative realm. For these images, he created wooden miniatures of San Francisco locations. Some, like his reproductions of the famed "painted lady" Victorian houses, are as small as shoeboxes, while his rendition of the city's Hilton is nearly 3 feet tall.

The level of detail is staggering; Sabella even fashioned windows for the Hilton using plastic wrap. For the image of a submerged San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, he stood atop a neighboring building to photograph the skyline behind the museum as a backdrop. Sabella says he wants a picture of "us as an ancient civilization, how things would look after we were just gone."

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