Photo essays for the Holidays

Three photography books released this year give wildly different treatments to a subject near and dear to every urbanite’s heart  —abandoned cities. But alone, or together, they also make the perfect holiday gift. In this season of joy, unity, and valuing the priceless instead of the pricey, these poignant books speak of memory and loss, and of the nature — and permanency — of home.

None gives truer meaning to the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words than Destroy This Memory (Aperture Foundation, $65). The large-format images of post-Katrina New Orleans presented by photographer Richard Misrach, a Guggenheim fellow who has been documenting the region since the 1970s, are not accompanied by any text. Except, that is, for the words that stand at the center of the photos themselves: the graffiti scrawled on the devastated homes left (barely) standing in the hurricane’s wake.

Whether profane (the F-word invective appears over and over again,) sardonic (“Waterfront property for sale”), threatening (“Don’t try. I am sleeping inside with a big dog, an ugly woman, two shotguns, and a claw hammer”) or pleading (“Seek God”), the message is overwhelmingly one of defiance and hope. It’s obvious that these buildings, with their fading clapboard, tattered blinds, and concrete frontyards, were never home to the privileged. But the grit presented by what’s writ — “The South will rise again,”  “I will rebuild this house,” “Hey, Katrina, that’s all you got? You big sissy. We will be back!!!” — makes clear that a home, no matter how humble, gives power to the weak and voice to the often unheard.

Katrina — or, more accurately, the breaching of the levees — may have led to long-needed frank discussions about the enduring disinterest in the city’s poorest residents, but there’s no denying that it was a natural disaster that served as impetus for all that followed. No such claim can be made for the disinvestment that has haunted Detroit for decades, and in “Detroit Disassembled,” (Akron Art Museum, $60), photographer Andrew Moore turns his lens on the office buildings, institutions, and public spaces that have achieved a morbid sort of patina through a different kind of neglect.

Here, the ages have chewed away at the ornate metal screen that shields an organ in downtown’s United Artists Theatre, and toppled a legless grand piano that sits, askew, in the middle of a hotel ballroom drowning in peeling plaster. Elsewhere, an eerie carpet of vibrant green moss has taken over a conference room in the former Ford Motor Company headquarters, while a few inches of fresh snowdrift blankets the floors of the desolate, graffiti-strewn Michigan Central Station, perhaps the nation’s most dramatically unloved masterwork.

Nothing Lasts. If you grew up in Detroit when . . . I grew up, [it] could easily become the mantra for your city,” writes Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Levine in an afterwords essay. 

“One could say that Detroit has become America’s vision of an open city,” adds Moore in a second essay. “It’s been left undefended against an onslaught of scrappers, vandals, and the forces of nature.” 

Both essays speak of a new era of “growth” in the virtual prairies that have risen across the sprawl of empty lots that litter the entire city,and they even go so far as to see the potential of reinvention. Looking at these phantasmagorically Gothic compositions, it’s hard to feel that positive. But it’s true that, as Moore writes, “now the Europeans . . . come to Detroit to tour our ruins,” and it’s true that an awful lot of people have become very interested in somehow saving Detroit. The era of Art Deco skyscrapers and massive industrial complexes might be over, they say, but Detroit ain’t dead yet.

The land of the truly dead is explored in the fascinating “Cemeteries,” (W.W. Norton, $75), the latest of a series of “visual sourcebooks” to American architecture, design and engineering (others include Barns, Bridges, and Theaters). Written by Keith Eggener, an associate professor of American art and architecture at the University of Missouri, with photos culled from the archives of the Library of Congress, the book traces the evolution of American burial grounds, from churchyards to “memorial parks.” 

It next delves into the buildings, architecture, sculpture, and monuments of our 150,000 or so cemeteries, before coming to rest with a final chapter that looks at the day-to-day experiences of what it calls the “silent city.” Funerals and processions are part of the “lives” of these cities of the dead, of course, but so are mourning and praying, as well as visiting and even recreation. “If the grave is the body’s last house,” writes Eggener, “then the cemetery may be considered its last village or city. The cemetery can be a sort of ideal, utopian city — well-organized, self-sufficient, egalitarian, and void of social conflict,” he adds, before noting a few pages later that “like a house, a burial plot or mausoleum is property, real estate, and as real estate it readily becomes an expression of social status and individual personality.”

As might be expected, the burial grounds of Philadelphia — from the small urban churchyard cemeteries of Society Hill and Germantown to the sweeping naturalistic treasures of Laurel Hill and Woodlands — turn up here. The latter two, developed as part of a mid-19th-century movement that brought cemeteries to rolling swathes of land located just outside of the inner cities, would go on to play critical roles in the ideas of public parks, residential subdivisions, and landscape architecture.

Three books, three unsettling but provocative reminders that Philadelphia has its fair share of historic cemeteries, abandoned houses, and crumbling factories. Depressing to many, but just the right way to say “happy holidays” to any aficionado of the built environment. 

Contact the reporter at jgreco@planphilly.com

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