This photograph is another from a series of pictures captured during a visit to the Dakotas. It was late June trip, and there had been abundant rainfall which resulted in many square miles of unimaginably green grass. We’d traveled west from Minneapolis to the left half of North Dakota – a beautiful part of the state and the location of the home in the photograph. From the look of the sky that morning it seemed likely that a serious downpour was imminent, but unlike the opening scene of the Wizard of Oz, our clouds raced away.
This was a trip mainly taken for photographs – and for me, it was photographing abandoned structures such as this one that brought the most excitement. In both North and South Dakota we found many similar structures – each fading back to the prairie with what often amounts to a surreal presence.
Whether or not the sight of abandoned dwellings is depressing depends on one’s point of view. The furor in North Dakota that erupted after the publication of Charles Bowden’s article The Emptied Prairie in National Geographic a few years ago is a good example of how this topic can be viewed from a variety of thorny angles. The article wasn’t meant to be so personal, but it was about North Dakota. In case you missed the small print, the point about failed assumptions and the resulting decline of population applies to many other places west of the 100th meridian too. North Dakota isn’t alone, it just took the rap.
From the point of view of photography, abandoned houses never depress me. On the contrary, I find them passionate and inspiring. I have no apologies about this because they make me create. Whenever I’ve encountered them, I feel like I did when I focused my first Minolta lens. Some of my earliest black and white pictures were of houses similar to this one. I stumbled upon them during a drive to Virginia’s Eastern Shore and felt like I’d found buried treasure. I’ve organized trips around finding them and and have gone to places like North Dakota specifically for that reason. And while I’m out there I should add, I also camp, hike and enjoy the view. I have good memories of meals I ate in remote places and have found comfortable beds in clean motels. Not everything looks like this in North Dakota, and if you need to know the truth, they have their share of strip malls and faceless suburbs just like the rest of us do. But for the most part, this is a state that comes down emphatically on the side of rural. One hundred and thirty years ago a fellow New Yorker named Theodore Roosevelt fell in love with the place and I can’t say that I blame him. If they decide to sweep all their ramshackle homes, trucks and sunken churches completely off the landscape then they’re doing us all a great disservice.
Why photograph old stuff? I’ve asked myself this question and get a variety of conflicting answers. One of the purposes of this blog, in fact, was to try to find an answer to this question.
Some say it’s about metaphors. I don’t dwell on such things when I’m taking pictures, but it’s clear that for some, an abandoned house is a symbol of sadness and misplaced expectations. To many others however, the same left-behind home can represent longevity and strength of character. For the family that lived within its walls, there must be no end to persistent memories.
I believe the falling-down places speak with a very clear voice. They tell us what we’ve forgotten. They’re Willa Cather. Their worn textures can scratch the imagination like a fresh match and their fading colors can invigorate recollection. Their smells, and the sounds of the insects in their grass can help form bigger pictures. I don’t know about you but I like it when that happens. From my point of view, these places point to how simplicity functions and how things become beautiful when they’re placed in the landscape thoughtfully. We seem to have a hard time remembering that these days. Most importantly, every time you drive past an abandoned home you’ve just read a page of your own history, and for that reason alone every single one of these buildings is vital.
More of my photographs of abandoned structures can be seen at this link: