A couple of weeks ago I purchased two urban exploration photography books: Abandoned America by Matthew Christopher and Autopsy of America by Seph Lawless.
|Urban exploration (often shortened as urbex, UE, bexing, urbexing and sometimes known as roof-and-tunnel hacking) is the exploration of man-made structures, usually abandoned ruins or not usually seen components of the man-made environment [Definition from Wikipedia]|
Both books have been published by Carpet Bombing Culture, a UK-based publishing company who describe themselves as "your counter-cultural publisher par excellence". Their objective is to provide the readers with premium quality art and photography books that contain critical and highly subjective commentary.
Although both books contain essays with great photography of abandoned places and buildings in the USA, it seems that the point of view - and as a result the exploration of the topic - of both photographer-writers is quite different, resulting in different approaches of the same subject matter.
I enjoyed and recommend both books, and will check out other titles by these photographers and from this publisher, in the end however my personal preference goes to Abandoned America. Read through to the conclusion to see why.
From the author's website: "Matthew Christoper is a commercial event, portrait, and architectural photographer who also teaches and tutors in photography and photo editing. He has had an interest in abandoned sites since he was a child, but started documenting them a decade ago while researching the decline of the state hospital system." Christopher also offers urban exploration workshops to the sites he covers in the book. More on Christopher, the book, and the workshops can be found on the Abandoned America website.
In his foreword Don Wildman captures the essence of the book and Christopher's approach: "The haunting beauty of Christopher's images...employs...geographic objectivity, a refreshing and purposeful lack of judgement...delivering the image artfully composed without heavy-handed commentary..."
What specifically struck me in the foreword and reviewing the images is that it is "...surprising...how many of these sullen images seem almost celebratory-again". And how "...images...somehow give a sense of hope, not melancholy". While the essays in the book serve to illustrate situations where (government) policies and decisions led to devastating results, and sometimes maybe might have been better changed, or adapted than dumped, they definitely also show that "...while it's tempting to sigh, swoon, and wistfully fantasize about better days behind us, progress is all that really ever makes sense and it comes from moving forward, drawing from the past lessons we must learn for a better-built future." This is exactly how I read and perceived the essays: beautiful images and important stories that need to be told to share these past lessons.
In his own introduction Christopher explains how he came to love photographing ruins and more importantly what drives him to create these essays. It is the combination of the photographs and the stories that "made these places amazing". He also spends a lot of time in exploring the background of the buildings and the people who lived, worked or studied there, "in order to create something that honors the sites, and those whose lives they were a part of, with the dignity and respect they deserve". He interestingly states that, because he feels he never achieved that goal, it is not easy or even enjoyable for him to photograph these locations and write the stories.
According to Christopher "Perhaps the most gratifying element of all has been seeing how many other people have come to realize they love these places too, that an homage to our past can be at once a shared goal, a eulogy, and at times even a celebration...They [these places] deserve to be looked at neither as some feel-good fantasy where all things wind up for the best, nor only as wraiths foretelling an eventual disintegration that awaits us all......they contain lessons about time, change, and surviving the darkness when it comes...". Christopher's dedication to the places he documents and their possible future, is probably best illustrated by the fact that he through his workshops generated a quite substantial sum ($18,000 by the time of publication) for the preservation of abandoned sites.
The book contains 13 essays. Each documenting in images and words the past and present of the buildings, areas and objects at the focus of each essay. The text of each essay is a mix of Christopher's own perception and feelings for the place, research he did, and interviews with people who lived, worked, or studied there. He also shares how he got to photograph the specific buildings and sites.
As Christopher indicates in his introduction, each essay not only illustrates the decay, and the reason(s) for it, or how things in the past could have been done better. Each also contains a glimpse of hope. In most cases this hope is created by people and organizations who are working - and sometimes fighting - to preserve the sites, bringing them back to their former glory.
Christopher's images have a very distinct appearance, because of composition and color palette. They very much remind me of cinematography stills, with rich colors that give the viewer the impression of really 'being there' with the photographer. The photos are extremely well executed, and combined with the text provide a complete impression of the places pictured: not only as they look now but also providing the viewer/reader with an image of how these places might have looked in their glory years, and how they might look again.
I really liked viewing the images and reading the essays. It gave a feeling of sadness, of what could have been and is not, of what might have gone wrong and could have been done better. But also a sparkle of hope: where individuals and communities are working to restore the buildings and sites.
Seph Lawless is the pseudonym for an American-based artist, political activist, and photojournalist who has been documenting abandoned sites in the USA since 2005. Although his work is globally recognized and has been broadly covered by major US and international news stations, he has deliberately chosen to conceal his real identity. More on Lawless, his vision, and his other explorations can be found on the Seph Lawless official website.
The foreword/introduction by Michael Goldfarb puts the reader and viewer directly in the direction the book is going. Describing Lawless' work as "Bleak and beautiful shots of ruins..." depicting the "...wreckage of a vanished civilization..." he immediately sets the tone for what is coming. Comparing current big cities with the ghost towns of the past as "places where hopes were crushed by catastrophe...on the scale of war" that "was waged by America's economic system on its own people", this book's intention is clearly to show that "The America that produced these buildings is receding".
Goldfarb asks whether people who live nearby, and probably on a daily basis drive past these ruins of modern civilization are angry. Lawless explained to him that they are, and that this is one of the reasons of the big political upheaval at the end of 2016 when Donald Trump was elected as President of the United States of America. The beautiful images Lawless created according to Goldfarb being the history of the USA in the Age of Trump.
This thread continuous throughout the book: it is not as much a collection of essays about specific places but a collection of images of destruction and despair sometimes almost haphazardly grouped in chapters. The images all have a distinct gloomy appearance. Even those taken in bright sunlight have a feeling of darkness around them. Whereas the images in the first chapters are pretty consistent, the second half of the book appears to be less structured with images of abandoned schools, malls, factories, churches, and train graveyards seemingly randomly mixed.
There is not much accompanying narrative that provides the viewer any insight into what he is looking at. And in some instances the use of text adds to the confusion: in one instance three pages that appear to be title pages of different chapters (An American Horror Story, The Final Curtain, and Hurricane Katrina) follow consecutively without anything in between. In first instance I actually thought that I might have purchased a wrongly assembled copy. Based on the flow of other pages however I think my copy is okay.
As mentioned, the narrative is very limited and where it exists, it is all doom and gloom. From all the examples I could have used, the following in my opinion best reflects the mood of the book: "America is a man falling off the roof of a skyscraper, and as he passes by every floor he says to himself...so far so good."
The combination of the beautiful but moody pictures, and the text focusing on the apocalyptic state of the places photographed and the reason these places are in their current state creates a feeling of disorientation and confusion. If this is what Lawless wanted to achieve, it is a clear case of 'mission accomplished'.
The interesting thing is that I was not able to put the book away. In first instance I didn't know if I was annoyed or upset by what I was viewing and reading. After researching Lawless' website however, and although I definitely do not share his worldview and opinion, I realized that he did a great job in getting his message across. After this revelation I was able to pick up the book again and actually appreciate it's setup and layout.
Both books are extremely well executed. The quality of the cover, the binding and the paper is very good. Although all pages are heavy weight glossy and smooth, as a result of the printing process several images feel as if they have some structure added. The images by both photographers are great: from a technological perspective and also from an 'feeling' perspective. Both authors in my opinion have succeeded in getting their message across. Abandoned America and Autopsy of America both provide thought provoking insights in the decayed sites and buildings, and the reasons that led to their existence and their current state. Both books also entice to look at other publications by Carpet Bombing Culture: Soviet Ghosts, Ask the Dust, Haikyo, Fukushima, Beauty in Decay I and II, States of Decay, and Abandoned planet.
From a subject matter approach point of view however, I like Abandoned America more.
The first reason being that Christopher provides a lot of background information about the locations he describes. I like to understand what it is we are looking at, why it was created in the first place, why it is in its current state, and what possibly might happen with it in the future. The personal stories of people who lived, worked, and studied in the documented places provide a great human touch, sometimes heart breaking, sometimes providing a glimpse of hope. This background information generally is lacking in Lawless' approach: he focuses on the current state of the places he documents and his opinion on the reasons why they are in their current state.
This is linked to the second reason why I like Abandoned America more. However much we need to be critical about what we are doing to our environments and other humans Autopsy of America has too much a negative bearing for my taste: too much an apocalyptic approach focusing on how capitalism has lead to the destruction of areas, places, and people. Although Abandoned America too shows the results of bad decisions and wrong policy, Christopher has a more neutral approach and includes an effort to show the greatness of these old places, and the hope and even some early indications that betterment is possible.
Similar in execution and very different in approach of the subject matter, I definitely recommend both books to be purchased and become part of your photography essays library.