Before the Advent of the Internet
In a world dominated by the presence of online media and constant access to information, where we can shop and make purchases with the click of a button or interact with friends or strangers through social media, we may forget that there was a different way to interact in the past. Before the advent of the internet, a central gathering space for Americans, those looking to browse through retail shops, buy books, go to the grocery store, or get a haircut, congregated on public avenues where people conducted social, and business interactions face to face on the main street. These spaces, replete with American stories and family history, are now vanishing.
Reminding Us of an Old American Way of Life
Photographer Michael Eastman, renowned for his striking architectural photography, as he calls it, “portraits of the inhabitants of the space even though they are not actually present,” has taken the cause to capture these incredible edifices teeming with American identity. With large-format photographs that present forward-facing buildings and with enough detail to look deep into the minutiae of American stores, shops, and facades, Eastman creates his Vanishing America series. The structures, seemingly standing at attention for the viewer, present those characteristics which collectively identify them as American. As you would scrutinize a portrait through facial features, hair, eye type, and color, we can distinguish these establishments the same. Through the use of lettering, the peeling coats of paint on their facades, or the faded murals that display discount goods, public art, or products from decades ago—these buildings serve as bastions of the land of liberty, reminding us of an old American way of life.
‘”Though each photo shows a specific town, all of the photos evoke that same particularly American loneliness in which we share. Virtually all fifty states – thirty of which Eastman sojourned across with camera in hand to compile Vanishing America – cobwebbed symbols of our small-town past lurk amongst the shiny newness of our fast-food junctions and Eisenhower interstate exits. The sheer thrust of American Dynamism has simply left Main Street unloved. But if your eyes gaze at these neglected roadside monuments long enough, you can be transported back to the time when Main Street was the epicenter of most communities.” – Douglas Brinkley – Introduction, Vanishing America.
Decades of History Flowing from Facades
The rustic brick-and-mortar buildings, housing record stores, churches, movie theaters, restaurants, barber shops, bars, hardware stores, and storefronts are being relegated to the past. These buildings, which at one point were icons of the industrial and commercial sector of American life, symbolize the importance of the storefront as an essential lexicon of American architecture. The architecture presents the environments of the people who inhabited these spaces. The style, wear, tear, and colors all suggest the decades of history flowing from the facades of each building. Thus, the small town represents the heart of America. Michael Eastman is fascinated with the effects time has on architectural places, no matter how modest or grand. His eye is that of a storyteller, always looking for a location; textures, colors, lines, and shapes are all transformed into poetic two-dimensional visual statements.
‘”Nowadays, our amusements tend to be private and pursued at home, although there are always casinos where, in the company of others, we can play the tables while enjoying the solitude of our own hopes… TV, video games and movies, cell phones and telephones, walkmen and iPods, even books and records encourage isolated pleasures. Bowlers with their buddies still roll out but we don’t want a bowling alley in our neighborhood. Bingo will die when its old ladies do and bridge requires homes of retirement. Perhaps one day we shall invent a machine that will live our lives for us while we watch.” – William H. Gass – Text, Vanishing America.
Giving Impressions and Memories a Permanent Presence
Organically, bricks, glass, wood, and the many materials that built America’s main streets decay with time, falling into disuse, often cleared away in the name of renewal or progress. Cities, main streets, and small towns are all temporal and subject to the vicissitudes of time, but our memories – and those of our ancestors – leave an impression and are part of our collective pasts. The photographs of Michael Eastman in Vanishing America give these impressions and memories a permanent presence. Inherent in photography, when viewing a picture, the past is brought present, if just for a fleeting moment. Time stands still, reminding us of what has been lost, or perhaps better yet, leaving space to imagine what is to come.