Roy DiTosti’s fascination with abandoned military structures began when he quite literally stumbled across one. In the early 2000s, shortly after the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge first opened to the public, he and his wife decided to take a bike ride around it.
The refuge encompasses more than 2,300 acres within the towns of Hudson, Maynard, Stow, and Sudbury. Formerly part of Fort Devens, the acreage was once known as the Sudbury Training Annex.
“We were tooling around when we just came across one of these things, poking out of the foliage,” said DiTosti, a 73-year-old professional photographer who resides in Stow. “I remember being freaked out, thinking ‘What the hell is that?’ ”
It was a windowless concrete bunker with a domed top. DiTosti would later learn that these buildings were nicknamed “igloos” because of their rounded shape.
His curiosity piqued, DiTosti began a multiyear journey to photograph abandoned or repurposed military structures at the Assabet River refuge, along the Massachusetts coast, and in Florida, exploring everything from American Revolution forts to World War II storage bunkers.
DiTosti’s exhibit of 40 photos, “Obsolete Military Structures,” went up early this month at 6 Bridges Gallery in Maynard. The gallery has closed in response to the coronavirus outbreak, but the images can be viewed online at www.6bridgesgallery.com.
Over his long career, DiTosti has worked at ad agencies, in the corporate sector, in the film industry, as a college instructor, and for magazines and newspapers including the now-defunct Boston Phoenix. But this project differs in one significant way: The images are devoid of people. Seen together, the photos seem to echo with static silence, absent any human presence.
After his initial discovery, DiTosti learned there were a couple dozen more such structures inside the Assabet River refuge. “Apparently what happened was that during World War II, the military was looking for a spot to store ammo before it was shipped to Europe,” he recently recounted while hanging the exhibit. “This spot was far enough inland — 20 miles or so — that if a Nazi battleship wound up in the harbor, they wouldn’t be able to lob shells this far.”
DiTosti felt an innate connection to these relics; he views his own birth in 1946 as a direct response to the end of World War II.
“I’m living evidence of some kind of celebration,” he said. “My brother was born in 1937 and could never understand why my parents waited until 1946 to have another kid. He didn’t appreciate that it was scary times. Who wants to raise a family when you might be forced to salute the Nazis? By 1946 the war was over. There was a sense of relief.”
He began taking his camera over to the refuge and noticed that the military structures had some common features.
“They all face north without much direct sunlight, which I think was to make them more difficult to spot via aerial surveillance," he said. "And they’re all situated right on the railroad tracks, so that materials they were housing could be loaded directly into boxcars and then transported to the Boston Navy Yard to be loaded onto ships.”
At a lecture he attended at the refuge’s visitors center, he learned the reason for the buildings’ arched shape: If there was an explosion, the rubble would go straight up and fall straight down, rather than flying in all directions as it would in a conventionally shaped rectangular building.
Inevitably, after a short period of photographing the exteriors of these buildings, DiTosti yearned to see what was inside. One day he biked over to the refuge as usual, only to find a hacksaw on the ground next to one of the buildings, and the bolt that had been barring its entrance sawed off.
Though he had never been tempted to break in himself, he was eager to take advantage of the serendipity.
“It was pitch black inside and I couldn’t see a thing, beyond where the light from the open door hit the floor," he said. "But I set my camera up on a tripod anyway and took a whole bunch of pictures. Back home, when I opened the images on my computer, I could see all the details: the contours of the interior, the masonry.”
Curious to see some other examples of abandoned forts, DiTosti and his wife, Kristen Weight, visited the Civil War-ear Fort Warren on Georges Island in Boston Harbor; Fort Revere in Hull; even Fort Pickens in Pensacola, Fla.
As an artist, DiTosti has no particular agenda for how his work should register with viewers. “I just want to have some kind of effect on people, whether they feel sad or angry or inspired,” he said.
In the case of this particular exhibit, “I want people to think about how these structures are stuck all around the country in various forms, and they don’t serve much function anymore. But in 1940, when the Assabet military forts were probably built, we didn’t know yet that we would kick the Nazis out of Europe and defeat Japan. Those were scary times. And what does fear do? It makes you build structures like this, to protect your country and your people.”Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.