EDIT (4.9.2020) – Some of these images are currently part of a special print sale I am holding. Click here to browse available prints.
As a Philadelphia editorial and commercial photographer, my work is often centered around people. However, as a fine art photographer, my practice is often rooted in the landscape, and my bodies of work are typically focused on land usage and people’s relationship to the land. The evidence of people is often evident in the work, even if the people themselves are not. These photographs are an example of this approach, and were taken in the former Trump Taj Mahal, in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
First, Some History – What Does $1 Billion Get You?
The Trump Taj Mahal, built at a cost of over $1 billion and dubbed “The Eighth Wonder of the World” by Donald Trump, opened in 1990 to much fan-fare. Burdened under the debt accrued through the building process, the casino was crippled financially from the beginning. It was on the verge of bankruptcy within it’s first 18 months of operation.
While it did eventually become the highest grossing casino in Atlantic City, Trump took on massive amounts of debt through it’s construction and largely divested his personal Atlantic City investments by 2009. The casino passed to new ownership in 2016. In 2017, it passed to yet another ownership group for $50 million (The Hard Rock), and was shuttered for several months while it was renovated to reflect this new branding. It has since become re-branded as Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Atlantic City.
A Golden Bergere Armchair? Sold.
In the summer of 2017, during this renovation period, my girlfriend and I (Tracie Van Auken, another Philadelphia photographer) heard of the liquidation sale happening at the Taj Mahal. She had been there as a child, and was incredibly curious about the sale. She wanted to find a lamp shaped like a giraffe, an end table shaped like an elephant, or some other incredibly ridiculous looking thing. While we didn’t find one of those, we did find an incredibly ornate golden bergere armchair that we purchased. Inspired by this first trip, I traveled back to the Taj Mahal several times myself over the course of the summer to make photographs.
What Was the Taj Mahal Liquidation Sale Like?
Most of the content of the hotel was for sale, except for the equipment planned to be re-used for the Hard Rock. This included the casino games and equipment, the equipment in their kitchen, and certain lighting fixtures. Outside of that, the things in the other environments (public spaces, lobby, all guest rooms) were up for grabs. The floors of guest rooms were opened one floor at a time, and were completely unsupervised. One would show up, see which floors were currently open, and could move freely throughout them, looking for anything that struck their fancy. The employees of the liquidation company brought flashier items down the lobby in an attempt to lure people in. Couches with zebra and leopard print. Statues. Etc.
I personally saw people bringing large box trucks and loading hundreds of conference chairs in at once. People were tearing down curtains from the rooms, and purchasing entire guest rooms for hotels they themselves owned. People would buy 35 mini-fridges at $20 a pop. The sale lasted several weeks, and over time, the prices fell. A lamp that was originally $25 became $5 if it lasted until the final days. All unsold merchandise would need to be landfilled by the liquidation company at a cost to them, so they were highly motivated to unload as much as they possibly could. The sale received news coverage, with several entities sending photographers and reporters to cover the event.
The Elephant (Table) in the Room.
The obvious elephant in the room is the fact that Donald Trump is the current president. While I really do not wish to make this work any sort of political commentary, the casino was undoubtedly a reflection of the man (loud, showy, boastful, and ostentatious), and the pursuit of wealth is indicative of The American Dream to many. The hotel was in a sorry state. Wallpaper had been torn down to find mold that needed repair. The public damaged it further, often attempting to pull down fixtures that were not for sale. Seeing it in this shuttered state, covered in mold and opened to bargain hunters looking for a deal, supplies a healthy dose of schadenfreude for Trump’s detractors.