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Thursday, 17 September 2009


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I like M. Scott Brauer's line about Eugene Richards: "An appreciation of Eugene Richards‘ work is tautological. It’s like saying 'I like the Beatles.'"


"These old structures surely say more about the soul of a place than our contemporary architectural wasteland of strip malls and fast food joints."

I'm not sure that I agree. It seems to me that they speak to what we want to believe about ourselves, to our imagined souls.

In any case, it's undeniable that artists and photographers have long been drawn to ruins (including the ruins of abandoned malls and fast food joints).

David Plowden, a magnificent photographer and teacher, says that he's spent his entire career "one step ahead of the wrecking ball."

My wife is originally from Schoharie County...and we now live in rural New Hampshire. Each time we go back to visit her family there, (or mine in Montgomery County, also upstate NY), we remark that we wish that fewer old barns, meeting houses, churches, etc were left beyond repair and were respectably restored or never left to disrepair in the first place, as in northern New England.
I'll have to pick up that book. We're sure to recognize a few landmarks. ...probably a few I have made exposures of myself.

One of my favorites: Phantom Shanghai
Greg Girard. Very interesting and just lovely.

"The limited text is carefully set in an attractive digital typeface."

What does that mean, exactly? Having participated in the transition from analog to digital typography, I'm baffled. Almost all type is digital now. You have to use letterpress reproduction to avoid it. So explain, please. I want to understand what the word "attractive digital" means in that sentence, two words seldom used together.

I must add:

David Plowden: Vanishing Point: Fifty Years of Photography

[Ed. note: See the TOP review]

Two favorites of mine from Japan: "Kowloon Walled City" by Ryuji Miyamoto, and "Ruins" by Shinichiro Kobayashi.

Those are my kind of photos. I treasure scenes like this.

Check out the work of Richard Sexton (I think he's still in New Orleans) for great images made in the South, especially his plantation images. He's got a couple of books out, as well, I believe.

Marty says "we remark that we wish that fewer old barns, meeting houses, churches, etc were left beyond repair and were respectably restored or never left to disrepair in the first place, as in northern New England."

Northern New England is a gold mine when it comes to old structures near the brink of collapse. Some times I would drive by a new find reminding myself to come back for a serious photograph only to find the last big snowstorm took it down. Never hesitate to make that shot if you really want it.

"These old structures surely say more about the soul of a place than our contemporary architectural wasteland of strip malls and fast food joints."

I disagree. The photos don't say anything about the souls of the places when there were actually people living in them, nor do they say much about contemporary life; all they really speak to is a romanticized mental fiction that has not much to do with anything but a certain kind of photography. If you look at old paintings with ruins, in most cases, nobody cares about the ruins, or, when you had a painter who did lots and lots of ruins, like Hubert Robert, people mostly no longer care about him, if they ever heard of him. I'd say there's much more going on in a crappy, declining strip mall than there is in a ruin, and I think they're much more interesting to observe. Just my two cents.

Martha Benedict-
Sorry if my wording isn't clear. One of my other hobbies is typography and fine book printing; I have a large collection of letterpress printing and way too many books on typography. I have to resist the temptation to babble on about the subject 'till readers' eyes glaze over. My daughter calls me a "type dork".

Essentially all commercial books today are printed digitally, using outline fonts that are still most often digital translations or recreations of traditional metal type. However, a small but gradually increasing fraction are set in type that was designed from scratch as a digital creation. Ruin and David Plowden's Vanishing Point are set in typefaces that originated as digital text designs. Both fonts are very attractive, easy to read, and nicely match the subject matter. Time Wearing Out Memory is set in Monotype's digital recreation of Eric Gill's Joanna type, and to my eye also looks lovely. Ghosts in the Wilderness unfortunately is set in a hideous digital version of Goodhue's Cheltenham, clearly derived from ITC's ugly 1960's phototype version. Sigh. The photos and the content of the text are worth trying to 'read past' this deformed typeface.

For me, an artistically appropriate text typeface and high quality book design & typesetting are almost as important as the photographic reproduction when it comes to judging a photo book's appeal. I try to give some indication of the typographic quality for those who are interested. Digital book design and web offset printing make it very easy to print mediocre quality text. With a bit more effort, which is sadly all too rarely seen, digital type and offset printing can produce very nice typopgraphy. But it's still flat and two-dimensional, lacking the sculptural and three-dimensional nature of letterpress.
That's why those few books still printed letterpress are so uniquely opulent.

FYI, there are still a handful of copies of Alfred Steiglitz: Photographs and Writings available via the George Eastman House giftshop. This book is beautifully letterpress printed in Monotype Bembo type on heavy cotton rag paper. And only $50! For type dorks like me, that's irresistible.

"like Hubert Robert, people mostly no longer care about him, if they ever heard of him. I'd say there's much more going on in a crappy, declining strip mall than there is in a ruin, and I think they're much more interesting to observe. Just my two cents."

JC, your history as a reporter is showing, then you mention H. Robert. One of my favorites at the Chicago Art Institute.

Of course, I'm reading a collection of stories from the "Golden Age" of pulp crime fiction right now, so "crappy strip malls" is in line with that.

An aside to the "vanishing glories" of small town America, is that if you get off the damn interstates, and go look for it, small towns, farmers are still there; a certain "hubris" on the part of the photographers and publishers belies the the life that is still there, in the rural parts.

I have to say that I am very intrigued by the first book. The idea of a sparse book with sparse subject matter is a wonderful thing. I have had enough long-winded discussions of subjects. Letting the photographs breathe is what is important. These places will be gone long before the images will be. That is the beautiful irony of the whole subject of abandoned architectural studies.

I have always loved exploring abandoned buildings, especially in the midwest. There are many abandoned farm homes. Peoples entire lives were sometimes literally kept in these homes. Their lives were a constant balancing act of going bust or keeping on with what they knew. I am starting to think that maybe I should publish some of my work. I didn't think there was a market for any of it...

For a different, really different look at abandoned settlements, not just buildings, I would recommend a visit to www.elenafilatova.com. She has a web site featuring photos, some taken by her, and others, of the abandoned and overgrown settlements in Ukraine, in and around Chernobyl. I usually avoid using terms such as haunting and thought-provoking to describe something, but I made an exception in this case. It's well worth a look.

Well, since it looks like we're going to dig into the nature and significance of the places portrayed in these photos...

@ John C. and John M.: I agree with your disagreements. Sentimental and romantic photos of abandoned buildings are fun to create and can be interesting to view. But if they signify anything meaningful at all it would be shifts in economics. Abandoned factories say more about Seoul than soul.

Suburban shopping malls are gradually becoming abandoned ruins themselves, again the result of economic and social shifts. I have already seen two photo essays on them. We'll be seeing many more in coming decades.

@ John C.: Indeed, paintings that featured ruins were very often veiled social and political statements more than documentation. Some of Hubert Robert's work was a good example. We have several of his pieces here at the Art Institute of Chicago. I can tell you that a lot of people care very much about his work and it's highly valued (although rarely offered for sale).

In that vein, I think the subtext of some of the best "ruins" photography is also social and political statement.

You might like to try the website www.abandoned-places.com and the book Henk has produced based on some of the photos from the website

I grew up in a time and place when the old West was just within living memory of local old timers. I got to see many ruined farmsteads when I was a kid. Decayed modern structures just don't have the same appeal for me.

The most delicate and moving ruined structures I've ever seen are those built by pinon gatherers. Some that I have come across are hundreds of years old. They are mere wisps of structure. Powerful, simple and enduring reminders of the real meaning of shelter.

A big ruin in the making is Detroit.

You may be interested in the blog: www.sweetjuniper.com
or the "ruin-tourism" site http://www.detroityes.com/home.htm.

A note to Hollywood: Modern day Detroit is a geat location for DWC movies (see my own blog entry http://roberts-rants.blogspot.com/2006/05/dwc-movies.html).

Ruins have a lot to say about what has been, what worked, what didn't. They are living history, a physical link to the past. It is a rich way of looking at how past events effect our present. They may or may not be direct reflections of the people who occupied these places, but their shadows are cast on the walls.

To dismiss ruins as a result of shifts in the economy is to simplify a complex subject. Ruins touch on many other subjects; history, social change, entropy, architectural language, engineering, local vernacular, personality of the builder, signs of the people who lived in these structures - as well as visual concerns, like surface, mass, line, texture, color, light and shadow.
A ruin can also be seen as an unfinished whole, where the missing pieces can be completed by the viewer. A fascinating subject that has kept me busy for 24 years and counting.

I think these places may have a soul for those that got to see life in them or have experience of life in places like them. I can't cast a bankers eye on these images and just think in terms of economics, though undoubtedly the cause of these ruins as sure as Katrina ruined New Orleans. But it's the effect that leaves its mark on me. The lives of the people that lived there, where they went, who they were. The sounds that once emanated from those places, that's what I think of most.

I walk past the Victorian Cotton Mill I worked in when I left school that has now been converted in to luxury apartments, as have all the others in my former industrial neighbourhood. The mills closed the jobs went to be replaced by unemployment, crime and addiction. Then came gentrification, the final nail in a historic working class area. I can't afford one of those apartments, none the natives can. That's simple economics sure enough. But I walk past that mill and remember being 16 and clocking in for the first time. I remember being out of a job for 8 years after they closed and spending much of that time in trouble with the law. Not unusual for our area. These are more than empty buildings, just as a home is more than just a place to live

I'm no romantic, but I'm no economist either


Geoff, I'm a type dork too and resonate with everything in your reply. Thank you so much for filling in the rich detail that would have assuredly glazed the eyes of most TOP readers had you included it in your review. I could tell there was a lot of thought behind "attractive digital."

this is a resonant photographic subject, though i hesitate to seek out these books because i feel the book format itself can rob this kind of photography of its impact; a very worthwhile article, once i got past this opening statement:

"Here in the States things are a little different; we don't have grand 2,000 year old stone palaces or castles in genteel decline."

perhaps it is the word "genteel" that hints at how you might have overlooked the tremendous legacy of stone structures and ancient outdoor art in the American southwest ...

Quite so! Here in the Northeast, Native American structures were transitory bark and wood, and were as ruthlessly extirpated as their inhabitants, and so have left scant cultural imprint. That's obviously not the case in the shadow of the Anasazi ruins in the Southwest. I've visited the Southwest only once, decades ago, and apparently that brief encounter failed to dent my resistant cranium enough to recall for this review.

In the Romantic tradition, ruins call-up melancholy and death, and ruins being overwhelmed by nature is a frequent motif. But while the subject matter can be inherently Romantic, the approach of the photographer can be either misty and Romantic or clear-eyed and modern. It sounds like we have a little of each in the books reviewed here. The only one of these that I have had a chance to study--Time Wearing Out Memory--does include some photos tinged Romantic. Others are less so, and the whole is worth looking at more than once. I particularly like the interiors.

Bill Poole

I'm interested in seeing Richards' work, and no doubt it's very, very good. But I ask myself, who isn't photographing abandonment at the moment? It's now a required course at Rochester.

One photo book that I own on this subject is 'The Destruction of Lower Manhattan' by Danny Lyon, photos he took in the late '60s, just after moving back to NY after working on the Bikeriders project in Chicago. Various construction projects were about to demolish 60 acres of lower Manhattan, many of which dated back to the civil war era.

Another fascinating work around the topic of ruins & allegory is 'A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey' by Robert Smithson. It's mostly text (short & very well written) along with some B&W photos he took using his Kodak Instamatic 126 format camera.

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