Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Doing the Walker Evans Thing

Capeville, 2005

A lot of photographers get caught up taking pictures of old places. I suppose it’s a result of seeing so many Walker Evans photographs that does it. It’s like you don’t stand a chance.

Some of the people whose work first got me interested in photography were Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and others who were sent out across America by the Farm Security Administration to chronicle the condition of agriculture and farm workers during the Great Depression. (Can’t you imagine the federal government doing such a thing today?) In those last days before media became mass, FSA photographer’s images weren’t just touching emotional artwork. They were journalism. They were history. They were the first real sense many Americans got of the desperate plight of dust bowl farmers and migrant workers whose experience would be fictionalized in The Grapes of Wrath.

One of the reasons photographers like old buildings has to be because old buildings are so full of texture. They’re also usually unoccupied. No one hassles you. You just have to be careful not to step through rotted floorboards or grab rusty handrails and fall to your death.

The roots of my interest in old places can be traced to the week or two I spent each summer as a child riding up and down Route 58 in Virginia with my father. Dad worked for a railroad. We were visiting his clients in all the little towns that stretch between Norfolk and Danville, Virginia. During the long dull rides between towns, I would lay down in the seat of the car and look up and out the window and see nothing but the blue sky and the rolling dips of the power lines that ran parallel to the highway.

Every now and then, I was allowed to accompany my father into one of his clients’ businesses. I got to see peanut butter being made in Suffolk. I was fascinated by the mechanics of a veneer factory in Lawrenceville. Near Boydton, we watched railcars dump giant granite boulders to form the shoreline above the Buggs Island Dam. At Danville we listened to the clack, clack, clack of the giant textile factory down by the river and spent the night at Ford’s Motel, a 12-room establishment that boasted a television in every guest room and a Coke machine right outside on the sidewalk, luxuries beyond my comprehension at the time.

Through the years I’ve had the occasional chance to return to some of those small towns. Many of the busy factories and businesses I visited with my father are closed, their buildings empty and quiet. I looked at those places, remembered the sounds and smells and seized on the idea of taking pictures of abandoned places and telling the stories of when they were new and “still someone’s dream.” I figured each of those buildings had a story to tell. They’d all had opening days, events at which they’d embodied the dreams of their owners and the hopes of the towns in which they were located.

After a few years, about the time I realized that every other photographer was making a similar trek through the wasteland of America’s commercial past, I tired of that series and tried to redirect my photography in different directions. But I’m still drawn to the shapely turn of an abandoned building. And if I’m driving alone down a stretch of highway and come upon such a place, there’s a good chance I’ll stop the car and take a picture of it and imagine the day when it was new and still someone’s dream.

Cheriton, Virginia 2005

Beales, Virginia, 2005 (below)

1 comment:

  1. Another great post, Chris! Wonderful shots--this last one is Hopper-esque. I'll bet those trips with your dad were imprinted forever--thanks for sharing them with us!