Some may view Jeff Brouws’ photography and be tempted to focus on the “old America” elements that sometimes appear within the frames. But don’t be mistaken: Brouws’ work is definitely a hard look at the new American landscape. His book, Approaching Nowhere , has proven to be a touchstone among photographers interested in the changes and conditions of the American cultural, sociological and visual landscape.
American Elegy would like to thank Jeff Brouws for taking the time to provide us with this compelling and thought provoking interview. -RF
Could you tell us how your photographic journey began?
What initially got me into photography were railroads. I don’t why I wanted to put trains down on film—perhaps they invoked a sense of wanderlust as one went by; or perhaps I enjoyed the aesthetics of the locomotives, or the grittiness of the railroad environment. Nevertheless, I do know walking along the tracks as a child in industrial and suburban settings proved fascinating—I got to see the backside of America—an unvarnished look at the manmade landscape. I believe these seminal experiences affected a lot of what captured my attention later on. These early images were made after school with a Kodak Instamatic, right down at the local station. They were nothing fancy, just snapshots, processed by the local pharmacy.
Later as my eye developed my images got more sophisticated. In tandem with that aesthetic growth was the notion that photography equaled travel—and those two ideas got intertwined for me. I took early road trips to shoot trains with a close friend and his father. I also hopped a few freight trains throughout the west in my late teens, which also gave me a different perspective on the landscape. So long-distance driving experiences, seeing unfamiliar locations, would become keystone ingredients fueling my later photographic endeavors.
I also learned a lot photographically shooting trains. I began experimenting with night photography in 1973, which would later become an integral part of my work starting with the carnival and highway series. It’s something I still do a lot of today.
It was also in this railroad arena that I encountered my first important photographic mentor, Richard Steinheimer, a railroad photographer every bit as talented as O.Winston Link, but someone you’ve probably never heard about (see A Passion For Trains - a reprint will be available in Fall 2011). I met him at age 17 in 1972, had a two-hour visit at his home that altered my life forever. It was the first time I’d been in the presence of an artist/genius/maniac—someone who just eats and breathes photography 24-7—someone just completely enmeshed in what they’re doing. On top of all this he was generous, self-effacing, supportive, interested in what I was doing, which in retrospect were important human qualities to pass along and a real gift to receive. I can’t tell you how important it is to meet such a kind hero.
Steinheimer also taught me about working hard. He could go two days without sleep if that’s what the photography demanded; he would also photograph in any kind of weather—he was impervious to harsh conditions. Philosophically, he was Buddha-like too: it was all about making the work and had nothing to do with achieving notoriety or making money. He was the real deal with the “doing” and the process being its own reward.
At age 19, I moved to Colorado and self-published a book on our railroad photography with a friend Ron Hill. Through this project I began learning about graphic design, lithography, and typography. I also learned that as an artist you have to make periodic investments in your self and your work. I can’t tell you how good it felt to hold a book of one’s photographs in your own hands, even a modest 80-page volume. Now with the advent of BLURB books and the various print-on-demand options available, which I think are a fantastic resource—I would urge every photographer to make books as they complete their projects. Psychologically it’s very beneficial and gives one a sense of closure.
You have stated that Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations was an influence on your work, but what was it, initially, that drew you to such subject matter?
From a very young age I found gas stations to be fascinating places for a myriad of reasons. They became my first true hangout, a place to feel my coming manhood and be in the company of men who were good with their minds and hands. What mechanics did always seemed mysterious to me—a blend of alchemy and common sense. I loved the grease encrusted tools, the polished steel of pneumatic lifts, the smell of lubricants and gas fumes, and became intoxicated with the inherent visual culture of the place: the colorful STP, Pennzoil, Holly Carbs, Zoom and Isky Cam stickers that seemingly were plastered everywhere. I loved maps and the racks of them that hung in offices that were free for the taking—the best devices I know for instilling wanderlust. Through the gas station I was introduced to graphic design, modern architecture (the station up the street in my hometown had a sweeping, googie-swoosh of a roofline), the allure and possibilities of travel, and immersion into a very masculine car-culture environment. They represented a sacred place and an important connection to my childhood for me. This probably explains why I had to photograph them initially. I did an homage to Ruscha’s book entitled Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations in 1992.
Was your connection to that material more anthropological or emotional?
Both. I think the previous question answers the emotional. In terms of the sociological or anthropological, those came later, but allow me to make a few observations: The abandoned gas stations represent different things. We can look at them as contemporary architectural ruins and revel in their design; we can ask questions about why this element of the roadside landscape fell into abandonment (which raises many questions about economic development and progress, or calls into question “creative destruction” as a defining feature of capitalism). In fact, as I was shooting the gas stations (and researching this “abandonment” phenomena) I discovered through articles in the Los Angeles Times that the EPA—colluding with Big Oil in the early 1990s—was helping to drive smaller independent gas station owners out of business by requiring them to replace aging underground tanks which was a costly proposition. Only major firms like Mobil or Shell could afford to retrofit. This scenario represented the beginnings of the contraction and monopolization of the worldwide petroleum industry, which has really accelerated over this past decade. Isn’t it just BP now and one or two others?
Notice, too, how the gas station has morphed into something else over the past forty years.
As a business it used to perform auto repairs, change tires, as well as sell gas—but those levels of service have disappeared. Eighty years ago it was a gathering place—an informal town square where one might trade gossip, local news or discuss the weather. What’s emerged in its stead is a convenience store with automated gas pumps out front. This transformation happened sometime in the 1980s when gas prices still hovered in the $1.50 range and the margins were thin. However, oil company accountants figured out that you could increase revenue by selling cheap food, coffee, or other small commodity items to your customer after they got done pumping their own gas. A brilliant strategy really. At the same time, the petroleum companies have also trained us to embrace “self-service” (yet another cost-saving measure for them and one later appropriated by the banking industry with the introduction of ATMs). I could go on. However, you see my point: while a photograph can surely just be a purely factual visual description, it can also contain a lot more. If we unpack its hidden content, it can tell us about cultural transformations taking place at “everyday” levels all around us. Knowing about these supplemental aspects relating to the subject I’m shooting gives me added motivation to be out making work. I often feel like a visual anthropologist recording our present day civilization.
How did your work first get noticed?
I got lucky. A writer that lived in Germany, Bernd Polster, contacted me about using gas station photos for a book he was doing in 1995. These he had found in a copy of the aforementioned Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations that he’d purchased at the LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) bookstore while in the States doing research. One thing led to another. We discovered we both had a deep passion about American highway culture; I started sending him color images of additional work, and the book Highway: America’s Endless Dream was born, which eventually got published by Dumont in Germany and then Stewart, Tabori and Chang in the United States. The German edition got me my first show in Los Angeles in 1997.
While your published photography has always, intentionally or not, been a statement on America’s culture, did you find yourself becoming more concerned with your work’s message as time passed?
Definitely. Doing photography helped me uncover and discover what mattered to me; although from the outset, even as a teenager, I was interested in sociology and archeology. So I think those passions/concerns started merging with the visuals too.
As I read further into cultural geography texts by J.B. Jackson, Dolores Hayden or John Stilgoe, or digested books by social theorists like Mike Davis or Marc Auge, I began to see connections. But that took about ten to fifteen years of working, making images … perhaps the downside of not coming up within an academic environment that might have fostered a quicker, more focused cross-disciplinary approach in me. I also made a conscious decision somewhere along the line that I was happy defining myself as a visual anthropologist doing social documentary photography. All that reading helped me look at the built environment from a deeper perspective.
I remember reading an interview where you mentioned the renewed hope you had for America from watching President Obama’s acceptance speech. Do you still have that hope or have we, as a cultural and compassionate society, passed the point of no return?
I would never say that I’ve given up hope but clearly the system is broken and needs to be reformed. It’s hard to fathom with so much human intelligence available on the planet that we, as a civilization, still make incorrect decisions about governance, important social policy, economic or energy issues. We can spend money on war but not education. Billionaires still want more tax cuts; corporations hide behind a veil of anonymity when it comes to taking responsibility for environmental catastrophe yet want to be treated as an individual, per the recent Supreme Court decision, when it comes to campaign contributions. Many of our citizens vote against their economic interests because politicians have learned how to play the family values card, i.e. touting anti-abortion or religious rhetoric, to garner votes. Most middle-class people think unions are evil because corporations who control the media have indoctrinated the populace to believe that. We’re collectively asleep; children from an early age aren’t taught to analyze or critique things, and consumerism seems to still reign supreme as a national goal and pastime.
The emphasis in our society seems to be on the individual and not on any notion of collectivism. No wonder Bob Herbert quit writing for the New York Times two weeks ago. His heart is broken about so much social and economic injustice.
With so many rust belt areas now looking like something out of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (the film was shot in western PA, where American Elegy is based), do you still find yourself shocked at what has happened to many of our once thriving urban centers?
To say that many American urban environments look like a bombed-out Beirut located somewhere in a third-world country would not be hyperbole. Initially it is shocking but once you start thinking about the structural reasons as to why it occurred … it begins to make a little sense from an historical and economic sense. We live in a different world than the one we knew 40 years ago. It’s going to require a re-tooling that may take a generation to complete; we’re not a country defined by heavy industry anymore. But then again with the right money put to work in the right places why couldn’t there be a second-era of industrialism for the United States … making solar panels or wind-generating technology? If we look at what’s happening in places like Detroit or Cleveland where urban planners are contemplating shrinking the footprint of these cities down to manageable sizes (to contain costs), interesting opportunities arise for urban pioneers who seek affordable housing or green space to grow food. I guess we can either lament the passing of what once was or decide the disjunction of earlier failed urban or public policy offers an opportunity to rethink how we live and how we might revive our cities. I see positive trends out there.
Have you embraced the digital trend with cameras at all? Would you mind briefly talking about what photographic equipment you tend to use these days?
I’m still old school mostly. I shoot a Hasselblad and Mamiya 7 and run either Fuji Superia 100 (when I can get it) or Extar 100 through the cameras. I occasionally go with Fuji Provia as well. I scan the negatives on an Imacon scanner, do some basic Photoshop work in terms of color-correction and spotting, and then print everything on an Epson 9800. That digital Hasselblad looks attractive, but at 25K, is a little beyond my means.
Can you tell us about any current projects or activities?
I’ve got three things in the works right now: two book projects and a local photographic series I’m working on near where I live in the Hudson Valley.
The first book project is a collaborative effort involving two artists and several writers that I know (five of us are putting the project together). It pertains to the homages to Ed Ruscha’s photo books (from the 1960s) done by about 90 artists around the world over the past thirty years (for reference see Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations or Real Estate Opportunities as examples). A collector in New York, Hermann Zschiegner, has been gathering these over the past decade. He and I became friends and e-mail correspondents a few years back and decided to do a book about this phenomenon. We’ve given it a working title of VARIOUS SMALL BOOKS: Referencing the Work of Ed Ruscha. Two art historians Mark Rawlinson and Phil Taylor are writing the text; Wendy Burton and I are handling the logistics and production.
I’m also working on a book about the vernacular railroad photographs I’ve been collecting over the last decade. There’s an ongoing interest in American vernacular photography. You can tell from my CV that railroads are a subject I’ve been involved with from the beginning. Most of these anonymous images came from the collections (long since scattered to the wind) of long deceased photographers who participated in the International Engine Picture Club, which was formed in the early 1930 to facilitate the collecting and swapping of train photographs around the country and the world. I’ll write an essay about all of this and we’re thinking of including about 250 images. Size-wise, it’ll be a small book.
Lastly, for the last two years I’ve been observing and recording the traces of abandoned railroad right-of-ways in the rural landscape surrounding my present home in upstate New York. History embedded in my own backyard. These railroads like the Poughkeepsie and Eastern, Newburgh, Dutchess and Connecticut, and the Rhinebeck and Connecticut were adjacent competitors that primarily served the milk and dairy industry. Redundant routes proved problematic. All lines eventually merged into the Central New England Railroad in 1908, later becoming part of the New Haven, which then abandoned them in 1938. Shortly thereafter the physical presence of the railroad was erased—rails were torn up, ties removed, stations razed or repurposed—but the former right-of-ways remained relatively untouched, awaiting discovery.
In truth, I’d been driving past these locations for the last three years unaware, until I finally stopped in May 2009 to investigate. I had a vague knowledge of their existence; I’d been looking at topographic maps and Google Earth satellite imagery of the area, which gave me a general idea of their whereabouts.
This series was also inspired by Mark Ruwedel’s archeological photographs of abandoned right-of-ways of western railroads as seen in his Westward The Course of Empire (Yale Art Gallery, 2008). I’m borrowing a page from his approach but with a twist. While my scope is narrower geographically (it only includes the legacy railroads built near my hometown a century ago as mentioned) it’s broader in other terms. Not only will I document the contemporary “trace” material culture of these railroads—from repurposed buildings, to the elegant, still erect stonework found in abandoned bridge abutments, to the worn but “readable” pathways of former right-of-ways, I will also rely on other forms of interdisciplinary documentation. Historical photographs and interviews with relatives of railroad workers will also be a part of my research.
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