Field Measure Survey of American Architecture, published by Mack, is a meticulous survey by photographer Jeffrey Ladd and curator and critic David Campany. It consists of 224 black and white photographs taken between the late 1960s and 2008. Dilapidated, shaky buildings imbued with a strong sense of nostalgia are shown to us both from the inside and the outside through iconoclastic imagery and the classic composition of the American documentary style. A long journey from Pennsylvania to Alaska along the entire territory of the United States.
The photographs collected show different architectural styles which, in their abundance of detail, can be traced back to different historical periods and building styles of the 20th century. Ordinary middle-class houses and rural buildings are gathered in an architectural compendium of great value. The buildings, often boarded up, seized and abandoned, find new meaning, new life and a new purpose after being photographed. Shells and casings of distant memories, far from the warm hearth that once warmed them and guardians of lost memories; through this new look, they tell us about the past of an entire country.
What strikes us from the first glance at Field Measure Survey of American Architecture is that it has no text inside, no introduction or preface, just a short gnomic quote by Thomas Pynchon in which we read: “All images courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Survey of Historic American Buildings“.
Jeffrey Ladd, an American photographer currently living in Germany, succeeds in the amazing feat of shedding light on some of the peculiarities of traditional and contemporary photography through the constant search for photographic images in the digital archives of the Historic American Buildings Survey. The latter, founded in 1933 at the suggestion of Charles E. Peterson, consisted of a large construction work programme for architects, designers and photographers who had lost their jobs due to the Great Depression. The HABS, together with the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER, established in 1969) and the Historic American Landscape Survey (HALS, established in 2000), have continued to document important architectural and engineering structures throughout the United States, making a thriving permanent collection of images and documents housed at the Library of Congress.
The images collected by the American photographer evoke with no little astonishment the great school of American photography formed by Walker Evans and Jeff Wall, showing us how much that way of seeing had already been profoundly sweetened through the gaze of his fellow citizens. From there, all the other artists have retraced this vision, dissecting it in multiple and now almost eternal forms. “A Field Survey“, as can be seen from the cover, offers a very wide selection of images by 107 photographers.
A compendium of architectures with ephemeral narratives. These images take us back to the work of great photographers such as Gregory Crewdson for some decadent interiors, emblems of a consumer society in decline; Jeff Wall for the anxious suspension of that precise moment; John Divola for his investigations into the meanders of destroyed and abandoned houses in search perhaps of some spirit or, finally, Todd Hido and the houses of Ohio. This collection presents the genesis of a way of observing and seeing the world. A documentary style, meticulous, punctual as if they were crime scenes yet to be examined. The camera is perhaps reduced to a mere recording device. An archival collection that immediately takes us back to impressive exhibitions such as “New Topographics” which opened at George Eastman House in 1975. This proved to be a real turning point for the future of photography itself. He was reluctant to embrace the aesthetics of the magnificent of the monumental, particularly the ideas of Ansel Adams, in favour of the familiar and the overlooked.
The view of a house in a neighbourhood or suburb, a market, a car park, suburban areas decaying or immaculate in a hypothetical fictitious and untrue whiteness, are subjects that we later find in other fundamental exhibitions such as “Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape” in 1975, an exhibition in which authors such as Stephen Shore, Henry Wessel, Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz participated, as well as Bernd and Hilla Becher, the only non-Americans but the most definitive of the group.
This book, by curator and critic David Campany and author Jeffrey Ladd, reminds us what it means to be able to capture an idea of America, its imagery and the complexities of its history. 107 photographers on a gigantic time axis succeed in what a single photographer could easily have failed to do.
A multiple gaze driven by a common imaginary. Peculiarities and differences are experienced in the minimal and at the same time gigantic variations of the vision. These ghosts made of old tapestries and moldy wood remind me, as I write, of the same imagery evoked in David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. The film tells of a man who dies prematurely in a car accident and of his ghost, who returns to his old home in order to be with his beloved. In the meantime, time flows unceasingly, brutally, mercilessly and it is as if he travels through time, along other dimensions in which the physics and truth of man vanishes. If it is true that photography attests to what has been, dusting off Roland Barthes, we can dare to say that the images contained here keep changing. Loaded with a heritage and an imaginary still current, they feed and arouse in us a very strong charge of interest and mystery.
Jeffrey Ladd is an American photographer born in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania in 1968. His work has been exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, Oklahoma City Musuem of Art, International Center of Photography, Soros Foundation’s Open Society Institute, Museum of the City of New York among others. He splits his time between photographing and writing about photography. From 2007 to 2012, he wrote over 450 articles for his website 5B4 – Photography and Books, a blog dedicated to discussing and reviewing photography and art-related publications. Ladd is one of the founders of Errata Editions, an independent publishing company whose Books on Books series has won many awards for their scholarship into rare and out of print photobooks. He is currently based in Koeln, Germany.