The Painted Tombs of Swift
To some, the decaying meat packing plant buildings in the Fort Worth Stockyards had become an eyesore.
But when veteran photographer Carolyn Brown was asked to record the Swift Meat Packing campus last year for preservation records, it evolved into one very meaningful assignment.
“It was enchanting,” Brown told the Fort Worth Stockyards Business Association members during a luncheon on June 19 at Cattlemen’s Fort Worth Steak House. “It was like the ancient ruins in Fort Worth.”
Brown, who is from Dallas, knows whereof she speaks. She’s photographed the decaying landmarks around the world including the brightly painted New Kingdom tombs on the West Bank across the Nile River in Luxor Egypt.
While visiting the Stockyards earlier this month, Brown drew a comparison between the Egyptian tombs and the Swift Meat Packing Plant.
“The tombs of Egypt, even though they may be three or four thousand years old, they have bright colors in them and this also had bright colors in them,” Brown said in an interview. She was referring to the colorful graffiti that was very prevalent throughout the buildings.
After photographing the structures in 2016, Brown produced a photo book entitled: The Painted Tombs of Swift.
Brown refers to the Swift buildings as tombs because animals died in them as they were slaughtered for the sake of meat processing.
Historically, the Swift Meat Packing Plant was built near the turn of the 20th century and was in operation for almost seven decades.
Brown writes in her Book: “Eight abandoned dark-red brick buildings stood crumbling on a twenty-two acre area at the end of Exchange Avenue at the Fort Worth Stockyards. Built in 1902 and deserted in 1971, these substantial buildings were the headquarters for the Swift Meat Packing Plant, important for the success of Fort Worth as a city those many years, and they suffered the powers of wind, rain and vandalism. Somewhere along the way, these shells became a palette for graffiti artists and most surfaces were covered with brightly colored spray painted designs and words. Some of the imagery was artful and some was not.”
However, Brown captured the latter very colorfully throughout her book. One of her prints, entitled “Stairway to the Upper Room” begins with a decaying door with graffiti surrounding it. Inside the building, in the background, there’s even more graffiti on the walls and staircase.
But one of Brown’s more captivating images is called “Pathway to Heaven.” It begins away from a building with a patch of green weeds and a brown trail, which leads up to the tall, red-bricked structure. Looming over the building is an oyster gray sky, darkened clouds that give the impression that a rainstorm or drizzle is imminent.
Brown photographed the buildings in April 2016. Shortly after she shot the images, most of the buildings were demolished.
Over the years, Brown has traveled extensively to photograph famous places and ancient architecture. She’s provided photographs for several books including Upper Egypt (1989), Caddo: Visions of a Southern Cypress Lake (with Thad Sitton, 2014). She’s also authored several books about her hometown of Dallas including Dallas: World Class Texas (with Annette Strauss, 1977) and Dallas: Portrait of a City (2014).
Brown said The Painted Tombs of Swift project gave her an opportunity to learn more about Fort Worth.
“Our job takes us lots of places that we wouldn’t go ordinarily,” Brown said. “This provided me with an experience that I couldn’t have had had it not been for my work. So, I got to know a little bit more about Fort Worth, certainly about the Stockyards and certainly about what made Fort Worth a great city.”
Brown said the project made a great impression.
“Big, important and lovely,” she said. “I also got to know a lot of the people and I find the people of Fort Worth are so nice and without pretension. They’re warm and hospitable and just nice.”
When she was a guest speaker at the Stockyards on June 19, Brown sold her book, The Painted Tombs of Swift, for $20 a copy and she autographed it for admirers of her work.