Last House Standing
One of the architectural quirks of certain cities on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. is the solo row house. Standing alone, in some of the most distressed neighborhoods, these nineteenth century structures were once attached to similar row houses that made up entire city blocks. Time and major demographic changes have resulted in the decay and demolition of many such blocks of row houses. Occasionally, one house is spared - literally cut off from its neighbors and left to the elements with whatever time it has left.
My interest in these solitary buildings is not only in their ghostly beauty but in their odd, almost defiant, placement in the urban landscape. Often three stories high, they were clearly not designed to stand alone like this. Many details that might not be noticed in a homogenous row of twenty attached row houses become apparent when everything else has been torn down. And then there's the lingering question of why a single row house was allowed to remain upright. Still retaining traces of its former glory, the last house standing is often still occupied.
In 2011, I began to photograph the homeless camps in and around Baltimore, Maryland. As development encroached on whatever woods are left in the suburbs and industrial parks of Baltimore, I found myself practically stepping into a number of homeless camps that were carefully hidden among strips of trees or bushes running along highways or behind shopping centers. I observed not only the effort that went into remaining hidden in plain sight but also the creativity involved. No two camps were alike. They ran the gamut from completely exposed mattresses to epic structures carefully constructed out of milk crates or wooden doors. All of the camps spoke to the yearning and failed hopes of their residents.
What turns in fate or life decisions led to the bottom end of the "One Percent"? More than one resident told me that living in a tent was a personal choice - yet it seemed to me that there was often no other choice. Even more than the solitary houses that I've documented, the homeless camps directly allude to the life trajectories of their owners.
None of the original camps from 2011 remain today.
Several years later, I returned to many of the original sites and found new camps that had sprung up in place of the old ones. This time, I also worked around the edges of each camp and, when possible, took my camera inside some of the structures. Again, I was taken by the ingenuity of these most marginal of people: drug addicts, alcoholics, ex-cons, men with a past or men who simply wanted to be left alone. Almost all of them were friendly to me, surprised to see me in their midst. No one asked for any favors. I wonder what will become of this current group of homeless men and women, many of whom have reached a point of no return.
The prairie houses in Out West were originally built after the Civil War continuing into the early part of the 20th century. During this time, the development of the railroad across this vast expanse, along with a surprisingly decent climate, created something of a farming boom. This all ended with the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, a calamity caused by an unfortunate combination of record droughts and improper farming techniques. The houses I photographed are the remnants of this period in history.
Unlike the row houses of Last House Standing, structures that were originally packed into very dense urban neighborhoods, the houses of Out West were built by people determined to seek a destiny in almost complete isolation. Despite their very different origins, both types of houses would eventually meet the same fate. While the prairie houses and their surrounding environment are remarkably austere, there is also present an almost otherworldly serenity that must have given hope to a landowner now long gone.
A House Apart
For many years, I have been photographing abandoned houses in the countryside around Baltimore and throughout the remote eastern shore territories across the Chesapeake Bay. Here, many of the older homesteads and farms are in the process of being replaced by planned communities, mega-malls, industrial parks and other forms of urban sprawl. For as long as anyone can remember (and then some) these homes were occupied by generations of thriving families. More recently, financial pressures from developers, a declining interest in farming, as well as other life events, have left the houses stranded. Some await the wrecking ball while the rest will simply vanish into the woods and underbrush.
Over the past several years, I have been documenting the vanishing landscape of the East Coast as new development explodes across the scene. "Last House Standing", "A House Apart" and "Rootballs" all form a visual statement about the passing of time and transition in this part of the country. "Landlocked", a study of pleasure boats abandoned in the woods, marks the latest entry into this group. Embedded in the forest, far from open water, the boats lie forgotten, unable to rot because of their hard fiberglass core. They are utterly useless in the woods other than to make one wonder about the human lives that preceded their current disposition.
Rootballs are the silent monuments in the forest. A rootball represents the end of a long, distinguished life, unwitnessed but for the occasional hunter or hiker rambling through. The dead roots of the exposed bottom are not unlike the arteries seen in a cross-section of the human heart. For me, the rootball is a metaphor for the heart, a jumbled, complicated map attesting to the power of a once great tree.