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the most important thing i can give

the most important thing i can give - Steadmoor Correctional Facility*
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What does a photograph of an abandoned building actually say? It's something I find myself wondering about a lot.

The simple answers have been written about quite a bit: the most obvious is that these places tell us about our past. They memorialize institutions that are lost in limbo, allowing us to confront, celebrate, and experience them even when they have been otherwise neglected and have fallen into disuse. But what of their opaque nature, the fact that an image by itself gives us little of what a place once was beyond what our imagination can furnish? What is there in imagining the past that is more intriguing than a similar photograph of a place that is still in use? Why is it that this is something that stands out to us in a way the present does not?

I've also read many articles about and discussed in my own essays the fact that images of abandoned locations allow us to communicate in the most basic visual language about the most fearful and in some senses taboo subjects: death and obsolescence. We are able to see our own demise and the end of the things we hold dear in these images, and contemplate the days when our own way of life will be little more than a memory. This 'memento mori' aspect - remembering that we, too, shall pass - certainly has its purpose also, and is important in that it gives us a forum to speak of things which are frightening and overwhelming through the safe medium of an image. We are not looking at a literal corpse, carrying the revulsion and horror of actual human mortality. Yet we can read humanity into buildings, which certainly bear the imprint of the people who created them and who, even if they are still alive, have lost this portion of their being. The time when inhabitants worked in a vacant site, or called it home, is no more. It will never again be what it once was. Like a photograph of a child born a century ago, we may infer that the subject is no longer alive, yet in this moment something about them still remains. There is a power, a tenuous sort of immortality that reminds us that no moment is gone even when we can no longer experience it.

There are social elements, architectural elements, economic elements, environmental elements. Why was this place abandoned? Where did the people go? How did they build it and how did that reflect the times they lived in? What is the impact of the structure's loss on the community? How does it return to the ecosystem when it is left unused, and how does it impact the life that returns? Is it a site that bleeds chemicals and poisons into the community around it? How will the parcel of land it inhabits be preserved, restored, returned to use?

These are all things I think about when I look at these places, and yet at times the photographs I produce are maddeningly opaque to me. I spend hours shooting and editing them, and I don't want them to be just images. Even though I strive to make them as much as they can be in that sense, to make them beautiful and technically correct, if it is just an image and nothing more I feel as though I have failed my purpose somehow. Maybe it is because I produce so many of them that their sheer volume seems like it veers off into meaningless obsession without some form of justification attached.

Perhaps most importantly, there is also the element of connection. When I am in a place, alone, that moment can be reproduced, perfected (to the best of my capability), and distributed instantly to people like you who can read it as they please and infuse it with their own dreams, fears, and reflections. My own experience is saved from obscurity, my own loneliness negated, and my own inability at times to find something to do beyond presenting a place for you to consider is forgiven.

I don't know what you take from this or why you are here. I can guess, but your part of the puzzle is an unknown variable that I will never truly understand unless you tell me. Maybe sometimes it seems that I sit in silence, that I don't know how to follow up or what to say to comments or thoughts. But I do seriously consider your reactions to these sites and am always trying to improve and add to what I do - for a reason even I am not always certain of. I know that there is something here that I must find, but I have faith perhaps you will find something too.

Thank you for taking the time to look, and for sharing with me what it is that you see. Maybe this dialogue about who we were, who we are, and who we hope to be is the most important thing that an image can give us.

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Photograph and text by Matthew Christopher of Abandoned America taken at Steadmoor Correctional Facility.


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