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American Quarterly 53.2 (2001) 324-339

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Book Review

Modernist Ruins

Elizabeth Blackmar
Columbia University

On The Plains. By Peter Brown. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999. 131 pages. $39.95.
Disarming the Prairie. By Terry Evans. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. 96 pages. $55.00 (cloth). $29.95 (paper).
Fish Story. By Allan Sekula. Dusseldorf: Richter Verlag, 1995. 204 pages. $45.00.
American Ruins. By Camilo Jose Vergara. New York: The Monacelli Press, 1999. 224 pages. $60.00.

FROM THE EARLIEST DAYS OF DOCUMENTARY WORK, PHOTOGRAPHERS HAVE OBserved the making and unmaking of American landscapes and have found ruins. Thomas Easterly's daguerreotypes of St. Louis in the 1850s; Walker Evans's photographs in the South in the 1930s or of boxcars with fading company logos ("Before They Disappear") in the 1950s; Robert Smithson's "monuments" of Passaic, New Jersey in the late 1960s--each positions ruins as prominent in the narrative of American landscapes and, hence, of American history. 1 In part this attention follows from the sheer pictorial allure of vulnerable buildings set against an aggressive or indifferent present. The retrospective quality of the photographic medium itself, moreover, invites a doubling of the sensation of time lost and places abandoned through the images of ruins. "The camera's special aptitude for the 'injuries of time,'" Susan Sontag has argued, reinforces nostalgia, a term that posits a veil [End Page 324] of distorting sentiment, a longing that can never be transformed into active motive or critical insight. 2 But perhaps it is worth asking whether the nostalgia evoked by documentary photography can sometimes allow us to see more clearly what is before us and thus become a stance for analysis or dissent.

Four photographers working over the last two decades have framed their books with meditations on nostalgia and thus invite readers to think about the problem of coming to terms not only with the past as it is personally recovered but with history as it is recorded in the built environment. What makes this project intriguing is that these photographers focus on the ruins of modernism, documenting the decay of what was the twentieth century's commanding vision of the future. Their backward looking gazes capture different facets of landscapes abandoned in the last thirty years. The pastoral nostalgia of Peter Brown and Terry Evans affirms a countervailing force of nature that contains and humbles the modernist project. The historicized nostalgia of Alan Sekula and Camilo Vergara protests the devastation that arises out of the logic of modern capitalism, which consumes and discards its past.

Peter Brown situates his initial encounters with the landscape of the Great Plains in his family's annual summer drive from California to Massachusetts when he was a teenager in the 1960s. In western Kansas, when his family stopped for gas, the thirteen-year-old Brown witnessed a friendly transaction between a storekeeper and two local, barefoot youngsters who had come in to pick up some eggs for their ailing mother and had received a cold drink. "In a way, my work on this book," he writes, "began at that nostalgic moment--as an envious tourist peering into a world he knew nothing about" (122). Brown continued as a young man to hitchhike and drive across the country; he worked on a cattle ranch in Wyoming, and he settled in Houston. The informing "idea" of Across the Plains "concerns a trip through the Plains--from open country to small town, through this town, and then out again into open space and sky. A simple idea but one that's occupied me for over a dozen years and for many thousands of miles, one that's allowed me to photograph anything of consequence on the land" (123).

Brown's eighty-seven color photographs range from New Mexico to Montana, Texas to South Dakota, Colorado to Kansas. On the Plains, co-published by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, is sumptuously produced; its rich colors preserve Brown's perception [End Page 325] of "spectral bands--greens, browns and blues, with the greens seeming to have the reach...