By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF ARCHITECTURAL PROJECTS, AT THEIR BIRTHS, REPRESENT A KIND OF FAITH, then the demise of buildings likewise signals a sort of death, a loss of belief, an admission of failure. Our new societies break ground on developments in one generation only to see them wither to silence in the next, a cycle of boom and bust that somehow has become the rhythm of modern life.
Viewing the ruins that result from all our once-bright industrial dreams through the lens of a camera creates a peculiar kind of commentary, less specific but more emotionally immediate than a written editorial or essay. The first uses of photography as chronicles of urban life were largely neutral, merely recording city vistas, monuments, cathedrals, scenic wonders. It took the aftermath of World War One and the Great Depression to infuse architectural photos with the sting of commentary, as if the photographer was asking, what have we done? What is all this for?
In the 1930’s, there was a quick segue from the New Deal’s programs for documenting relief programs to a new breed of socially activist shooters like Walker Evans and Margaret Bourke-White, who showed us both the human and architectural faces of despair. Suddenly closed businesses, shabby tenements, and collapsed infrastructures became testimony on what we were doing wrong, of the horrific gap between our dreams and our deeds.
In every town across America, photographers continue to search for the headstones of our lost hopes, the factories, foundries, and dashed ventures that define who we hoped to be, and how things went wrong. It’s not a photography of hopelessness, however, but a dutiful reminder that actions have consequences, for good or ill. Turning our eyes, and lenses, to the stories left behind by the earlier versions of ourselves is a way of measuring, of keeping score on what kind of world we desire. The headstones bear clear inscriptions. Deciphering them is the soul of photography.