Making memorable images

Bones, splinters, and dust


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It’s been said that to explain a photo is to limit its interpretation. But in this case I thought this story was more than just the photos, it had to be told in words as well. As a person who is mainly a writer, the story was forming in my head as I shot this series, and it begged to be written. So, at the risk of “limiting” the photographic interpretation, here is the accompanying text.

On the dark side of the street, the wreckage sits silent, filled with dust, the smell of decay hanging heavy in the air. Across the street are the cookie-cutter houses that may as well be made of paper and spit, sitting on their postage-stamp lots. Every one is the same, and an owner of one of those would have to worry about coming home drunk and wandering into a house that was not his or her own. They are packed tightly together as if they are afraid of letting the natural environment emerge in one small spot to try to gain a foothold. The smell of human existence wafts through the neighborhood, an aroma of laundry soap, roasting meat, and the stink of human shit.

Where the wrecked house sits, in the dark void like a stilled heart, the dust and the emptiness, the spirits and memories sometimes stir restlessly. A void is by definition empty, or unfilled, but this place used to be filled with light and life.

As a photographer and storyteller, I have wanted for a while to find an example of a ranch house that had once belonged to a working cattle ranch/farm but was now derelict, overcome by the developers, the land around it ruined and bulldozed, the farm buildings either reduced to skeletal remains or long gone. On my way back from a photo shoot two nights ago, I nearly had an accident while driving my car when I saw what I had imagined. That’s it! That’s the house! I thought excitedly as I looked desperately for somewhere to pull over. The way the road was, divided roadway on one side, undeveloped and rough on the other, there was no place that was apparent. Often when developers go in, they are required to develop what is in front of their abomination, but not the other side of the road. What happens is a “when worlds collide” situation, the past and the present clashing as the modern world meets a less complicated, less regulated time. I drove home vowing to return soon, before the place was gone.

Friday night I returned, determined this time to find a place to safely pull over, park, and attempt to capture the images of what was obviously a very nice ranch house in its day, now halfway demolished and sitting abandoned at the side of the road. It reminded me of a story my mother used to read to me when I was a little kid, called The Little House. It was about a house that was way out in the country. It saw the lights of the city in the distance and wondered what it would be like to live there. The city moved closer and closer, until the little house was engulfed by it. It grew derelict and broken, however, it was moved by the granddaughter of the original builder of the house to another place in the countryside. What the little house learned is that development sucks, and she never wanted to live in the city again. She was thankful for a second chance, and that story had a happy ending.

I brought a friend who also enjoys photography, and I parked the car a few hundred feet up the road. As the sun went down, we grabbed our cameras, locked the car, and began to walk back to what was left of the house and property. Dusk descended, and we found our way along a berm that had been pushed up by the bulldozers. My feet shuffled through the dust as the dirt grew thick. I saw deep holes, about the circumference of a food can, and wondered what made them. I also saw some objects bleached white by exposure, and it took me a few moments to realize what I was looking at. They were bones.

As we drew closer to the house, I could smell the musty cold smell of organic material breaking down, the smell of deterioration and loss. When I got to the front of the house, I immediately swung my camera in front of me and started taking photos.

What I saw through the lens was a house that was once a home, a home that used to be a nice home. I wondered about the people who had lived there. Where were they now? Did they live close by? In a twist of irony, might they or some of their relatives live in the plastic development across the street? I wondered how much money they had made from the sale of their property, and if it was worth the unraveling of the fabric of life that had been woven inside that house.

The windows of the house were now broken, every small pane of glass methodically smashed. Inside, there was some vivid wallpaper of the kind that was popular at the time the house was in its heyday, and a wood floor that looked as if it had once been finely finished and lovingly maintained. The doors to the house were missing, and there were only remnants of the “do not enter” tape on the thresholds. I still did not go in, but imagined that there was a grand fireplace in the family room because I saw the stately chimney rising from the roofline.

As I walked around back, the stench was stronger, and the horror more complete, as if I were viewing a crime scene and I was looking at a corpse. At the back of the house, part of the roof over the porch had collapsed, and it looked as if large piles of rubble had, as a final indignity, simply been pushed into the back of the house. Despite the assault, the main house was still standing strong. I had to wonder when it would get tired of withstanding the elements, of holding itself up in a posture of dignity and courage, and when it would simply give up and succumb to time and nature. At least it will until the bulldozers come for it.

Behind the back retaining wall were the remnants of a working cattle operation. The shells of buildings remained, and there were piles of dirt mixed with feed and manure. I saw a pile of cylindrical objects formed by concrete, behind them in the distance were the red and green traffic lights blinking on and off, and the endless stream of car headlights. People who drove by this place every day without giving it even a look, oblivious. To them, it was a part of the landscape that was invisible by denial.

I was shooting and looking, and then the enormity and tragic drama really struck me.  The rubble piles, the bones, the smell, soon got to me and all I felt was exhaustion and depression. From out of the semi-darkness I heard the voice of my friend, Hal, saying, “are you ready to go soon?”

“Yes,” I said, relief in my voice. I had lost track of where he was, and I was relieved that he was close by. “This place is creeping me out.” It was creepy for him as well, and I was glad that I had brought someone with me to do this shoot. The longer I was there, the more I was affected by the place. We trudged back through the flour-like dust, and I could feel the dirt entering the mesh of the old faithful workout shoes that I like to wear. It was going to take more than a shower to wash away the feelings I was having as the night closed down around me.

Back in the warm cocoon of the car with my camera safely stowed, a cup of coffee in my hand, I started the engine, spun the car around in the pullout, and entered the mindless flow of commuter traffic. I was mostly silent on the way back to my part of town, at least until I had another cup of coffee.

I felt as if I had dredged up a former life, dug deep into some strangers’ past, prodded the ashes of someone’s lost history. Now, though, I wanted to leave it all behind in the darkness and return to my own life. Sometimes, though, I am not glad to be part of this modern world, this frenetic life that demands instant gratification, this accelerated moving forward with no thought to the past. Of course I sit here and think that as I use my brand new computer, the internet, and digital camera. The irony is not lost on me.

I am glad I shot this series of photos, though, because soon what’s left of the ranch will be gone. Soon it will be just a memory, and after that, the memory of it will fade with those who keep the memories. It will be engulfed in the sea of change, the passage of time, and too soon the land will be under another ugly development and no one will ever know that “the little house” ever existed.

Real life doesn’t have the happy endings described in books, and I am quite sure there will be no second chance for this “little house.”

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