Dream Deferred: American Suburban Landscapes
“I lean toward the enchantment, the visual power, of the esthetically rejected subject,” Walker Evans
My passion for the landscape informs my work as I photograph the human impact on the natural environment and explore its cultural implications in suburban settings. I grew up in the suburbs and left the suburbs as soon as I could. I never understood why I had such a strong urge to do so until, as an artist, I started photographing them.
When I think about how things have changed between then and now, I realize that my early response was much like that of photographers in the seminal photography exhibit of 1975 “New Topographics: Photographs of the Man-altered Landscape” at the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. The photographers in that show dealt with the urban sprawl of the 1950’s and 60’s. The country seemed on an upward trajectory with new shopping malls, housing developments and gas stations built at an incredibly fast pace. But the banal and conforming architecture which was cheap to build had a deadening impact on the people who lived in those shiny new communities.
I have been photographing the changes since 2008, coming back to some of the same buildings year after year, seeing no improvement. The Great Recession of 2008 is over. But the deterioration has continued. So something else must going on. Today it is apparent that online shopping, among other things, has left America with far more storefronts than needed. Stand-alone stores are being shuttered, with no alternative use for most buildings. Malls and shopping centers go begging as traffic drops, tenants leave, lease rates collapse and the facilities end up wholly or nearly empty. Neighborhoods, and sometimes, entire towns, will be impacted as these empty buildings reduce interest in housing and push down residential prices. We are starting to see this happen now.
I see my work as the canary in the coalmine, perhaps signaling the beginning of the end of an era. This is why I find photographing these buildings so interesting. I believe architecture may well serve as a bellwether of things to come. The work will lead me to the answer. I just have to be open to observing and listening to what it tells me.