Book Review: The Blue Room

Plain close-ups

Click away at the Amazon 'Customers who bought this item also bought' feature and you'll find an increasing number of photo books devoted to American ruins, though I think abandonment is perhaps a more truthful description. It seems a side product of the throwaway society. Commercial concerns can just walk away from factories (especially low-tech ones) shops, drive-in theaters, gas stations and forget about them. I recently reviewed Detroit Disassembled: Photographs by Andrew Moore, a fascinating photo book about the city with some amazing shots of buildings and their contents which were just abandoned.

Photographers like Eugene Richards and others headed for the Great Plains area where the human side of abandonment is scattered across the landscape and intimately visible when you step inside some of these homes. Lone houses from decades ago are slowly falling apart, more recent ones still keep the elements out but the thing I find intriguing is the amount of personal life that is left behind. Photos, letters and other personal possessions, clothing, appliances and household items are just left. Perhaps there is only so much that can be loaded into a pick-up and everyone must have had some form of transport to live here.

Eugene Richards, with his first color book, explores sparsely populated rural America with sensitivity and curiosity but I found so many of these photos seemed trapped in a format of showing decay and being arty at the same time. There are too many shots of confusing compositions involving curtains and window reflections mixing the exterior and interior of rooms, too many really tight close-ups of objects: dolls faces, torn photos or a wall clock. Too few photos of the overall scene: a family room, bedroom or kitchen where you can see two or three walls which pull into focus the decaying structure, rusting appliances and personal effects scattered around on every flat surface and slowly morphing into rubbish.

I think the photos by Steve Fitch in his Gone: Photographs of Abandonment on the High Plains capture the feel of decaying houses on the Plains in a much more focused way. His shots have pulled back from the specific tight detail in so many of Richards work to give a much more thought provoking view so that you feel you are in this room or just about to walk into that entrance. Fitch also managed to find and photograph houses that looked like they probably fell down soon after he left. Like some interesting Blue room photos his book also has some close-ups of family mementos.

I don't know why Phaidon made The Blue room so large, a rather unwieldy sixteen by eleven inches, it's not as if the photos were full of precise detail like the street scenes of George Tice or the saturated detail of an Andreas Gursky photo. Most of Richards images have large color shapes which merge into other colors or fade into darkness. There are no really hard edges for the 300 screen to capture. The printing and paper are of the quality one would expect from Phaidon and also, typical of the publisher, the captions are all in the back pages instead of placing them on the blank left-hand pages opposite all the photos.

A couple of other books that I've enjoyed covering the decaying Plains are Ghosts in the Wilderness: Abandoned America by Tony Worobiec, mixing shots of the landscape (especially with rusting vehicles) and interiors of homes and commercial buildings. John Martin Campbell specifically looked at an historic period in his Magnificent Failure: A Portrait of the Western Homestead Era and with seventy black and white photos plus very detailed text recreates that rare book that makes a struggling way of life decades ago come alive for today's reader.

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Two other books cover the same subject, though not in such a personal style as Richards book. 'Gone' by Steve Fitch I think is the most comprehensive photo book of the three dealing with Plains abandonment.

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I thought there were too many photos like this in The Blue room. A rather confusing composition

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Perhaps one of the better photos in The Blue room because it actually pulls back from the many close-ups and reveals what abandonment looks like.

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