Book Review: Abandoned America: Dismantling the Dream by Matthew Christopher
If the creation of a structure represents the values and ideals of a time, so too does its subsequent abandonment and eventual destruction. In Abandoned America: Dismantling the Dream, photographer Matthew Christopher continues his tour of the quiet catastrophes dotting American cities, examining the losses and failures that led these ruins to become forsaken by communities that once embraced them.
From the heartbreaking story of a state school that would become home to one of the country’s worst cases of fatal neglect and abuse, to the shattered remains of what was once the largest mall in the United States, Abandoned America: Dismantling the Dream questions what leads us to leave places behind and what are the consequences of doing so.
Matthew Christopher’s journey to document abandoned sites began a decade ago while researching the decline of the state hospital system. Realizing that words alone could not adequately convey the harsh realities of institutional care, Christopher embarked on a journey to visit and photograph the crumbling state schools and asylums in our midst. Ten years later, Christopher’s focus had broadened to include the ruins of American infrastructure, industry, churches, schools, theaters, hospitals, prisons, resorts and hotels as realized in his best-selling book, Abandoned America: The Age of Consequences (Jonglez Publishing) and his 2016 follow up, Abandoned America: Dismantling the Dream (Carpet Bombing Culture). From Taunton State Hospital in Massachusetts to the US Air Force’s aircraft boneyard in Tucson, Arizona, Christopher’s extensive collection of derelict sites is featured on his website Abandoned America.
While looking through Christopher’s images of these places and locations of historic or personal importance, I thought of a story that has stuck with me for over a decade. It is a story about an abandoned house. In the house, boys who had gone exploring found a treasure trove of letters written by or about the former residents of the home. In the radio documentary story, The House on Loon Lake by Adam Beckman, This American Life #199, Adam’s mother recalls the house in question when he interviews her for the story. In speaking about the house and objects Beckman found there almost 25 years earlier, she says, “The abandonment is melancholy. In a way, it’s worse than throwing away, much worse. I can understand one family being obliged to flee or run or abandon, but that nobody else cared. That it was so overwhelmingly abandoned by everybody, that nobody had cared to solve something, to resolve something. That was very offensive to me. It was like leaving a corpse. You don’t leave a corpse. And that’s a little bit the feeling that I had. That here was a carcass, the carcass of a house, of a life, of a private, and nobody cared to pick it up and give it a proper burial. I thought that it was important that somebody should care. …Objects have lives. They are witness to things. And these objects were like that. So I was, in a way, glad that you were listening.”
Through his writings and his images, we know Matthew Christopher is looking and listening to these places that quietly sit, and for better or worse, remind us of the history passing through the spaces he documents; the lives that were touched, and the bitter-sweet memories that remain.
In speaking about the haunting Taunton State Hospital, which housed the mentally ill from the late 1800’s until the main hospital building was officially closed in 1975, Christopher writes in Poe-like sentiment:
Perching high up on the old infirmary’s roofs at sunrise and
trying to balance myself on the steep, crumbling slate,
it is amazing to witness that something once so ornate, so filled with hope
disintegrated into the mess of rubble and debris behind me –
where once there was a great ornamental dome, a magnificent auditorium,
an administrative hub that was this mighty beast’s nerve center
now there is only the whisper of what once was, what could have been.
It is a beautiful morning to be at such a vantage point,
even if it is atop the decaying remains of a dream gone horribly wrong
If you were able to look across it all, you’d feel it in your very bones and blood –
the weight of its history, the many things it represented to so many people.
Maybe if you could just see it, you’d understand.
Matthew Christopher earned his MFA in Imaging Arts and Sciences from Rochester Institute of Technology in 2012. His work has been exhibited in museums and galleries across the East Coast, and featured in many national and international publications.
Abandoned America: Dismantling The Dream by Matthew Christopher
With introduction by Don Wildman
Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Carpet Bombing Culture; Lam edition (September 15, 2016)
All images © Matthew Christopher, used by permission.
To find out more about this book, or order a signed copy of Abandoned America, visit Christopher’s website: http://www.dismantlingthedream.com
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