Cromwell Manor in Melbourne, Australia, operated as a brothel for 20 years before closing in 2012. According to artsHub, the brothel was known for its themed rooms and was abandoned “in a hurry.” In early November, Christian Pearson was commissioned by the building’s new owners—who are planning to build a youth training facility that will include a bakery, boutique coffee roastery, and catering venue—to photograph it.
When Pearson arrived at the building, he found it almost frozen in time. Cigarettes were left in ashtrays, sheets lay dormant in dryers, towels were hung up, and mints were ready on pillows. “I guess that intensified the experience because it felt like the doors could be flung open at any moment and business could resume in a heartbeat,” Pearson said via email.
Left to shoot the premises by himself for five hours, Pearson said he felt tense inside the brothel. “I would be tense in any ‘abandoned’ site, though this being unlike anything I’d seen before left my imagination to fill in gaps in what I was seeing and sensing,” Pearson said. “It was very quiet, allowing the wind to bounce around and give me the odd fright. I think also because the windows were blacked out I felt a sense of dislocation from my own reality. It was an interesting exercise to see how my mind works when making photographs because although the rooms were full of easy-to-make gratuitous images I still looked for colour, shape, and the geometry of the space.”
Although prostitution is legal in Australia and brothels are legal in most parts of the country, Pearson said the attitude about the industry is mixed. “I think many Australians know it exists and see that it exists but then are happy to rely on stereotypes to form an opinion on it,” Pearson said. “It is very much a case of sweeping it under the carpet and pretending it’s not there.”
Still, Pearson said he was determined to photograph the brothel in a way that did not place any judgment on the space. “My job is simply to present what I see in the way I see it,” Pearson said. “I think it would have been very easy to photograph in a gratuitous way, but my clear intention was to treat it like any other site I shoot.”