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Photographer On A Mission To Chronicle Downtown Bethesda

By Aaron Kraut

Wednesday - 7/23/2014, 3:05pm  ET

The old Ranger Surplus store, set to be redeveloped photo via Boris Feldblyum The southeast corner of Battery Lane and Woodmont Avenue, photo via Boris Feldblyum 7901 Wisconsin Ave., photos via Boris Feldblyum Bethesda Metro Center 3, photo via Boris Feldblyum The Chevy Chase Bank Trust buildings, photo via Boris Feldblyum

Maybe it’s his interest in city planning, his eye for architecture or the challenge of making good photos out of old, unremarkable buildings.

Perhaps it’s sentimental. He’s not sure exactly why, but Potomac-based photographer Boris Feldblyum is on a mission to chronicle downtown Bethesda in the midst of substantial change.

The Russian immigrant came to the area in the 1970′s and in the last 10 years, has shot a variety of downtown Bethesda buildings as a side project and displayed them on his website.

His regular clients include architecture firms and real estate developers. But when he’s strolling through downtown Bethesda, he often finds himself pulling out his camera and snapping shots of structures most probably don’t give a second thought to until those structures are being torn down.

“It’s hard to think of present in the past tense,” Feldblyum said. “I realized, here I am with a camera and there is an opportunity and it doesn’t matter right now whether the building is attractive or not. I have a camera. I take a photo.”

There are photos taken last winter of the one-story brick building at 8008 Wisconsin Ave., the former space of Ranger Surplus that’s up to be razed and redeveloped into a 14-story apartment building. There’s a photo of 7900 Wisconsin Ave., a mid-century office building few would describe as endearing. It’s slated to be redeveloped into a 17-story apartment building with some striking architectural features.

“A building like that, there might be no architectural or aesthetic value to it, but the building was there,” Feldblyum said. “People got used to it. It was part of an everyday routine. Buildings are a part of memory, streets are part of our memory.”

Feldblyum said his interest in photography, especially of the architectural variety, probably started when he was 11 or 12 growing up in the Soviet Union. Feldblyum would take the photos, which he later realized was rooted in his interest in the history of changing landscapes and communities in the country.

Upon one of his first visits to Bethesda with American relatives, Feldblyum remembered seeing the Crown Books that used to be located at Wisconsin Avenue and East-West Highway. It was the first mega-bookstore that he had ever seen.

Some years after it had closed, he wondered why he didn’t take a photograph of it.

“I started thinking about the lost opportunities,” Feldblyum said. “Now especially, I look at buildings as potentially future has-beens.”

Since, he has taken photos of downtown Bethesda, Silver Spring and Rockville, all with the goal of chronicling what was there by photographing what’s there now. In a rapidly redeveloping Bethesda — where there are at least 20 new building projects recently completed, under construction or in the pipeline — he’s not the only one interested.

A few times a year, Feldblyum will get inquiries for photos of old or existing Bethesda buildings, mainly from commercial clients in search of photos of former offices or peeks into Bethesda’s not-so-distant past.

“It’s hard for me to realize why I take photos,” Feldblyum said. “It’s just something that I do.”

After some more reflection, Feldblyum came up with another possible explanation: “Part of what we like about the past is that we were young,” he said. “Maybe this is the easiest way to handle this.”

Photos via Boris Feldblyum