American Ruins

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Every American should have a coffeetable book about ghettos and vacant lots.

Camilo José Vergara

Reviewed by Megan Shaw

Thursday, April 13 2000, 11:32 AM

Every American should have a coffeetable book about ghettos and vacant lots. In this glossy, hard-bound tome, Chilean photographer and writer Camilo José Vergara photographs an America that can perhaps be most clearly seen through the eyes of a non-native. The invisibility of abandoned landscapes is so deeply woven into our culture that even the most alienated American reader will find something dislocating and disturbing in these photographs. In the boom-time dream world that hip coffee table book buyers inhabit, "urban decay" is just another brand name, not the vivid acreage of forgotten lives and spaces which have been left behind.

Vergara's book is a compendium of landscape photography that can be read on many levels. It is primarily a documentation of the contemporary decay that haunts the regions of our country where industrialization and development once commanded miles of busy towns and suburbs. As a history of public and private spaces, American Ruins shows the endgames of histories that are rarely told, much less shown. These are the histories of communities evaporating, structures outliving their usefulness, and people who have been brutalized by economic forces that whipped through their homes like fire.

As ethnography, American Ruins provides some important visual information about what artifacts remain in such environments, and also what they look like when they are still inhabited. But the book is most powerfully a document of combined architectural and social history. It is foremost a book about buildings, specifically what happens to buildings when they cross paths with contradictory socio-economic forces. Once carefully planned and beautifully executed, factories, homes, and train stations may "live" to fulfill a human purpose that turned out to be transitory. They are then left over, like monuments to a passing inspiration, leaving a vast surplus value of space and structural intentionality. Sometimes they are re-used, and become homes for surplus human populations, or they simply rot away, their facades frozen in a pose of purposefulness.

The big question that this book leaves behind is about the human beings. By recording the landscape traces of social and economic forces that have wrought their will on American populations, Vergara opens a million questions about where the inspiration went, where the people went, or, more importantly, if the people are still there, where are they going? American Ruins invites further annotation about the social and political patterns that create such spaces, and the life cycles of those patterns. What can we expect of these spaces? Where do they fit in our lives?

Vergara's text is extremely historically and architecturally literate. Chapter titles like "Assorted Broken and Wasted Things," and "Dealing with Eyesores" reveal a sardonic relationship with both Americans' own disavowal of their decaying spaces, and the intrinsic value of such spaces. He has researched his subjects, and has anecdotal information about a large number of his inspiring photographs. From stories of goths finding spirituality in empty buildings to kids begging for copies of his photographs, Vergara supplements his photos with powerful, if anecdotal, accompanying textual snapshots. As he points out so clearly, "stories of abandonment are as unique as the stories of the people involved in them." Do not abandon this book to the ash-heap of art school reference libraries.

New York: The Monacelli Press, 1999 

Copyright © 2000 by Megan Shaw. All rights reserved.

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