A Field Measure Survey of American Architecture

Jeffrey Ladd and David Campany, 2021

A transcript of a conversation around the book A Field Measure Survey of American Architecture, edited by Jeffrey Ladd and published byMACK 2021.

David Campany and Jeffrey Ladd

David Campany: Jeffrey, what is A Field Measure Survey of American Architecture, and where did it begin?

JL: I had randomly discovered an architecture picture by Francis Benjamin Johnston through the Library of Congress website and found it stunning. I had known her only through The Hampton Album photographs and had no idea she did a vast project on architecture in the American south funded by the Carnegie Corporation in the 1930s and 40s. It is nearly 7,000 photographs and surprisingly rich. But in my research I realized those pictures were a subset of a much larger archive in the LOC called the Historic American Building Survey, which is over half a million documents…

DC: It’s a sprawling thing…

JL: Yeah, it was established in 1933 and continues through today with the aim of documenting historical buildings, but “historical” doesn’t really mean only important examples of architecture – courthouses, homes of notable people – for the most part the pictures and documentation are of common residences around the country from the urban row-houses to suburban and rural homes.

DC: The foresight in that project is fascinating. I don’t know quite what expectations there were. The interesting thing about an architectural survey is that the makers of it don’t necessarily need to know what people might want from it in the future.

JL: Exactly. It could serve architects, historians, anyone interested, for any number of reasons… I make the connection to Eugene Atget and the sign outside his studio read, “Documents pour artistes” as if he modestly thought his work as a kind of source material for others to use whether it be illustrators, newspaper cartoonists and even Surrealists who were seeing his photographs as Art. So delving into this HABS archive the same applies, one can shape it according to their own interest.

In the beginning I was just collecting them for my information, as resource material, but after gathering nearly 2000 images, it felt expressive about America in ways that I was never able to do with my own photography. I had made half a dozen photographic road trips in the 90s trying to describe something of America and failing miserably at it. Driving tens of thousands of miles back and forth across the country to realize a handful of pictures that made no sense together. I started thinking maybe this archive, which travels through so many communities, was an outlet to try and shape “something” about America.

DC: I’ve always had my doubts about that Atget sign. We only know of it through an interview with Man Ray, who may well have wanted to put Atget beyond the notion of authorship.  Anyway, it’s interesting because partly coming back to that openness of the idea of the historic record that concentrates on architecture, when the sensitive architectural photographers or photographers interested in architecture, let’s put it that way, speak about it as a kind of portrait, as much of a time as of a place, and the building becomes almost like a kind of social script to be read.

When people discuss Walker Evans they tend to think of the sequence of images that make up the first half of his 1938 book American Photographs which is to do with people and citizenship, but the second half feels like a kind of historic architectural project, and more like a survey than a sequence…

JL: …the way he links pictures page after page of façades and architectural details…

DC: I’m becoming more and more interested in the number of access points there are into photographs.  As you say, what does a project like this mean to an architect or to a local historian? Because in the position you and I may be in – small “p”or  large “P” photography – in a way is not really a position… (laughs). It’s not how most people relate to photographs, which is primarily via subject matter.

JL: No… (Laughs) Speaking of Evans, the method here is greatly influenced by two of my favorite Evans pictures; The Richard Perkins contractor photograph…

DC: …an extraordinary image.  Some people like the fact that it’s taken in Moundsville Alabama and there’s a mound of dirt in front of the building, and it’s is the only thing that stops it from being a completely flat façade.

JL: The other photograph is the kitchen in a sharecropper’s house also taken in Alabama in 1936…

DC: …with the cutlery on the wall.

JL: …that’s not the same building but in my mind they’ve become linked. The form and qualities of those two pictures of walls – one shot with sunlight the other artificial flash – they share such bright silvery tonalities. I can’t think of one of those pictures without thinking of the other. That linking freed the form of the book. I would sometimes find an amazing exterior picture of the building but maybe there wouldn’t be an interesting interior of that same structure or vice versa – they shot a great interior but not a great exterior. So I began compositing my own architecture informed largely by the qualities the pictures share rather than the facts of the location. Any “portrait” I make is going to be in composite, it’s going to be manipulated. It is the same as flipping through a photo book say of Robert Adams where he shows you an exterior photograph and then you turn the page and there’s an interior picture you know that it’s probably not the same building.

DC: Perhaps this has to do with photographic as opposed to cinematic editing. In a movie if you see the exterior of a building and it cuts cut to an interior, very rarely is it in reality the same building, yet almost always it is implied that it is. But if you place an exterior photo and an interior photo in relation to each other in a page sequence… there is only ever suggestion. It is nothing like as emphatic as it is in cinema.

JL: So part of my interest is in imagining what the interior could be and then finding images that flow. The fact that I’m presenting this as a kind of “survey” implies the truth but really you can’t trust it, it’s not really a survey.

DC: People often use the term ‘functional’ to describe “straight photography”. I often think it’s the least functional in the sense that the straight, uninflected image cannot prescribe how it’s read.  The more “neutral” the photograph, the more possibilities there are, and the plurality of possibilities runs against the idea of function. Pictures that can be made to be functional, of course. Think of Bernd and Hilla Becher who had such a status within photography and conceptual art. I remember reading about who bought their books. Half of the total print runs of their books would go to architectural practices and design studios. So we’re back to the Atget idea of the documents for artists and artisans, and for whoever might find a use for them. That kind of photography keeps the door open.

JL: Exactly, that’s also one thing that’s interesting about this particular archive. For instance, the first picture in the book is of the side of a house in Pennsylvania and the picture screams 1930s. It could have been taken by a contemporary of Walker Evans, like Pete Sekaer, except that the picture was made in the mid 90s. In fact, all of the photographs that I’m including in the book were made within my lifetime and probably 90% of them were made within my life in photography which started in 1986. This was a surprise to me because my presumption was that these were really old documents. There are old photographs of course in the archive, it started in 1933, but I was continuously tricked by trying to read the “date” of the picture just based on the information it contained. Many of them were unmoored from a particular time. When I think about Walker Evans, those pictures are kind of stuck in their time.  Maybe because I know too much of the background of them, but these pictures seemed to be jumping around in time. When I was on my road trips, I could’ve driven by this house, or that structure.

DC: If these images are being made within your own lifetime, are they actually being made by photographers who are knowledgeable of the tradition they are working in?

Jl: One could assume so but I have no idea. There are probably 60 or 70 different photographers represented here but I don’t recognize any of their names and have no idea of their backgrounds. There are photographers all over the country that contributing to this archive, many for decades. It could be as simple as, they happen to live in a particular area and in their spare time they documented buildings for couple weeks a year.

DC: Some of them feel almost like the continuity stills that use to get taken on film sets.

JL: Absolutely. Part of it is also some of these documentarians are traditional architectural photographers, all the keystones are straight and everything is perfect right angles but then there are also pictures from photographers who were apparently walking through the buildings with handheld 4 x 5 press cameras and flash where the descriptions get a little cockeyed. The ways the buildings have settled gets a bit exaggerated once the camera is off the tripod. And then you have this direct flash and strong shadows. It is as if the concerns of the photographer have shifted more towards intuition rather than rules of “correct” architectural photography.

DC: It’s interesting what you say about the perspective of art or contemporary art on such work. It is certainly Evans who was positioning himself as the one who will step into various vernaculars. When he is on the subway he’s a spy; when he is photographing buildings he’s an architectural photographer; and when he is photographing tools he is I kind of pack shot industrial photographer.  He worked a kind of ventriloquism of the anonymous practices of photography. And I think for a certain kind of audience Evans becomes kind of authored porthole into that mass of vernacular anonymity.

I think the same might be said of an artist like Christopher Williams riffing on industrial photography, and in the slightly different way Richard Prince reworking commercial imagery, or Stan Douglas impersonating a kind of mid-century press photographer.  I guess we’re at a point now where audiences are so interested in vernacular practices in themselves that they don’t need the artist-ventriloquists anymore.  They don’t need authored Art standing as the guide.

JL: That’s an interesting point and gets back to the question of access points into pictures. I would often be triggered into thinking about contemporary art from many of these structures. For instance I remember I had recently bought the Les Levine book from 1971, House

DC: Oh, with the collapsed barn…

JL: Yeah, the whole conceit of the book is that each picture of the barn’s ruin is supposed to serve as suggestions for sculptures to be made by someone else. I got a copy of that book early into my editing and that influenced my choices because I would see houses or architectural details as sculptural things, which often they really are, just not linked to abstract of sculptural art. There were many pictures that you could mistake as documentation from Gordon Mata Clark’s architectural interventions.

DC: Let’s look at the image titled Lockhouse, Oldtown, Allegheny County.

JL: It’s amazing isn’t it?

DC: …it’s kind of perfect. You couldn’t want any more from a photograph, in a way.

JL: My first response to that was to think of Rachel Whiteread…

DC: The photographer has either stumbled into or waited for the perfect light. The lens choice seems perfect, the vantage point too, the framing is intelligently unobtrusive. I feel like I can really see that building and sense its volume. All of that is of course highly illusionistic and yet that’s clearly an aim of that kind of photography, to make it feel optimal. Not a commentary. Not an interpretation although of course it always is. And I can see why you would wish to have taken it. I have felt that in the past.  I did a book with Mack called Gasoline, a collection of press photographs. It was prompted by the image that wound up being on the cover, which I just thought was amazing. I wish I had taken it, but really all I wanted to do was give it another life, to body it forth somehow, and maybe put it in a framework that interested me, but not to overstep the image.

Jl: But to your question, how to body it forward, to prepare an audience for looking? I kept coming back to my own road trips that relied on me crossing paths with something in the physical world. Here, I’m interjecting my own kind of road trip although it’s not a circular trip that comes back to the beginning, it’s one that starts in Pennsylvania and weaves north and south tacking west.  Eventually you wind up in Alaska. The end. And then if you want to go further, you’re moving into Russia.

DC: (laughs) This kind of historical slippage is fascinating because when you think of when photography becomes modern in America in the 1920s and 30s there’s a question as to whether the modern should be a commitment to the “latest,” or whether it is obliged to kind of stand back and look at the persistence of the past within the present. And this becomes very complicated with American architecture, because it is around this time that the rather conservative fantasy sets in that house for American people to aspire to is not modernist at all; it’s a kind of heritage version of vernacular clapboard construction…

JL: …with a bit of Greek revival…

DC: Yes, which is exactly the kind of stuff that Evans was interested in looking at in the 30s. And yet we’re several generations on from that.  Some of those old buildings are still around but mainly its newer ones in the fixed style. So I’m not surprised that these images couldn’t be easily dated. Plus of course, the conventions for architectural photography have not changed much either, so that kind of construction and the ways it is photographed and documented have remained in lockstep for a century.

JL: The last administration in the USA was trying to implement all future federal buildings should be in Greek revival style and there was a survey I read where a surprising majority of Americans agreed with that.

DC: Sound like German in the 1930s! We have a similar impulse in UK architecture, endorsed by Prince Charles.

Jl: One of my concerns was that people would mistake this for “ruin porn” or something, because that is not what draws me to the pictures. It’s the nature of this archive that a lot of the buildings are falling into disrepair. Ambiguities of time and seeing things as purely sculptural were more interesting to me. Like this stair banister which is so ramshackle, it’s one of my favorite pictures. In some ways I think it’s brilliant as a form to look at but as a functional banister it comes into question. It seems to embody the improvised American can-do spirit…

DC: …and also the vernacular principle of pragmatism and adaptation, with no rules. Improvised problem-solving. The ruin question is interesting because there’s always a fine line between gawping at ruin and seeing the effects of time on things. And I’m more inclined to think of the pictures you’ve chosen in the ladder way.  A building exists and overtime it suffers the fate of time. But ‘ruin’ seems too melodramatic a term. One of the pictures here shows a hallway. There is staircase to the left. A phone on the wall on the right. You can see through the front doorway and there’s a car outside and you just know that the photograph captures more than the photographer could have ever seen. Especially if they’re using some sort of 4 x 5 press camera and a flash and a tiny aperture. There’s a an excess that is always interesting. Photographs always exceed intention, they exceed vision. Suddenly you’re just in the world of possibility and association where photography meets sculpture meets literature meets forensics meets performance meets cinema. That’s where it all gets kind of wild and indeterminate somehow. And even arranging such imagery in an order cannot quite tame all of that. These pictures aren’t at all like human vision.

JL: More like a machine…

DC:  I remember talking to Lewis Baltz about this. He said “I wanted to make my pictures of industrial park architecture as neutral as possible, and transparent as possible, and as much like human vision as possible.” And I replied: “They don’t feel anything like human vision to me.”

Jl;  (laughs)

DC: They feel like renditions of what a certain camera technique will give you and maybe we’ve come to accept that as neutral, but it’s not really anything like human vision.

JL: Right. The interiors, when contrasted with the correct perspectives of the exteriors, feel more like we’re wandering through the space.

DC: Less rational and formal.

Jl; In the archive as a whole there’s a whole gamut to the look and language of the photography. There are some photographers that go in with extreme wide-angle lens and everything has this attention-getting splayed manner that I am generally not so interested in and then there were people using a kind of normal to slightly wide lens that tames the splayed perspective. You could feel them almost feeling confined. There’s something quite claustrophobic in what I sense is their movement or where they were able to stand.

DC: The book is grounded in a kind of “norm” –elevations of building exteriors. That is the continuity. The frames of reference for the interiors are much wider. Once you go inside, you’re wondering if this real estate photography or forensics, or some dark motive.

JL: Yeah things get a little weird.

DC: I’m looking at one now where I can imagine any number of different kinds of photographers would be wildly excited at the potential of this picture. Whether it would be 1970s photo conceptualists like Robert Cumming or John Divola, or a an interiors photographer like Lynn Cohen, but it also feels on the cusp between photography and sculpture, or photography and performance. It is ritualized and strange.

There’s an interior shot looking from one room into another, with a mattress flopped over a bedframe, a picture on the wall, some kind of rail above the door. It’s actually a very assured and intelligent photograph. Such an image doesn’t get made by accident. That’s somebody thinking very carefully about where to stand to get the most detail and spatial information and along the way the image is picking up all kinds of associations, or viewers are. But a photographer doesn’t necessarily have to be thinking about such associations when they take it; the associations are just going to come with the picture somehow.

JL; Yes you find that time and time again with these pictures. I’m rooting them in architecture but they resist. There is a picture of a hallway cut into a paneled wall and you see this almost funhouse of receding doorways…

DC: that picture reminded me of that scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds where Jessica Tandy goes to find the guy who she thinks might’ve been killed by the birds. She looks down a corridor and there’s a series of jump cuts leading into the pecked-out eyes of the guy on the ground.

Jl; Yes.

DC: It’s so interesting what the medium has to offer without forcing it. It stems from the restraint of all of these photographs. In selecting these images, you have your own interests but the photographs are always going to escape those and appeal to other interests. One doesn’t know whose hands a book like this is going to fall into, and what they might make of it

Jl; Absolutely. Garry Winogrand used to say “once the work exists, the artist is irrelevant,” and to a certain degree I agree with that. I can’t predict how someone is going to read the book. I can play my games and soothe my curiosities.

DC: It’s interesting how even book titles or blurbs become the script for looking. Especially when people are unsure of the book. They often don’t feel free to accept or entertain their own responses that they’re having.

JL: It makes people distrustful of their own opinions. They’ve read the blurb and that tells them how they should feel about it.

DC: I think about this a lot. I guess the famous example is Albert Renger-Patzsch’s  Die Welt ist Schon  (The World is Beautiful) 1928 . The title frames the work and how to look at it. But he wanted to call it Die Dinge, Things, which is far more restrained and enigmatic. That book got panned by the serious critics because the title led them to believe Renger-Patzsch was simple beautifying everything. And in a slightly lesser way I feel the same about Winogrand’s Women are Beautiful. A terrible title for a book and terrible way of organizing the pictures that are in it. Yesterday I was watching the Winogrand documentary and Shelly Rice notes that the whole concept of that book is appalling, despite the fact that she feels some of the images are absolutely extraordinary, and had they come up in other books…

JL: …we would read them totally differently.

DC: Or read in a number of different ways, and not put them into a particular straitjacket of interpretation. So in the context of this book, Jeff, I guess it’s a delicate balance, doing the work of finding and selecting and organizing and re-presenting, while at the same time wanting to set people free with this material.

JL: Yes, yet it seems I’m putting up many hurdles. The title alone, which is purposefully bloated and factual-sounding, sets you up to expect a truthful document. I’m giving you the addresses of these places, quite literally positioning you at the doorstep and then switching locations once you’ve figuratively knocked on the door. I enjoy being a little subversive that way.

DC: What do you think about the unnamed labor of photography? There is such a long history now of re-presenting existing images and as you were saying earlier a lot of really fascinating photographs are made without any great authorial intent. They’re made by extremely competent, extremely thoughtful technicians, almost.

JL: Yes, technicians.

DC: I remember when you republished the first book of Atget’s photograph (Atget: Photographe de Paris, 1930, Errata Editions, 2009) I wrote an essay for it titled ‘Atget’s Intelligent Documents’ because we tend to think of the photographic document as functional, “dumb”, not very thoughtful. As if thought is on the side of the author or artist. I’ve always felt this is a misleading binary. The dumb document, the clever artwork. I guess on some level, it’s the nature of the medium and that’s why photography will always have one foot in art and one foot out of art. It’s what keeps it alive and kind perplexing. So, when you read some of these pictures in relation to other things such as Gordon Matta Clark’s architectural interventions, you’re kind of pulling them toward some kind of authorship but only up to a point.

JL: Well I think it has to do with my approach which is to step back and look at an image apart from its intention. To just take the thing in, you know. I was reading about Andre Malraux’s Musée Imaginaire (Museum Without Walls)… pulling all of these different photographs of artworks together to perceive the artworks  in a different manner. A lot of people work with archive material and sometimes there’s some brilliant work but most of the time the images do little more than fulfill a particular idea, and the images aren’t always so resonant. I’m choosing these pictures specifically because I can just look them, so they stand alone, but also as the group it says something about America.

DC: There’s something also about the photographs here being so immaculate. Yours is not an archival investigation that is interested in the deterioration of the image – the dog-eared corners, the damage, the stains accumulated by the image as archival object.

JL: No, absolutely not. Some of the images I’ve actually cleaned up. For instance, if there were developer marks in the skies or some sort of hair in the scan or unintended blemish. I’m trying to present the cleanest possible windows into this world, getting rid of any superficial photographic distractions that might come between the viewer and the subject.

DC: Many of them are just gorgeous, tonally. Like this one (shows picture of a door)

JL; Yes. And what’s interesting is that was made with the 4 x 5 camera and flash directly mounted to itra, so there are hotspots reflecting off the wood which many “technically-minded” photographers would actually try and to avoid, just like the Walker Evans’ kitchen wall picture is lit basically with the flood of light.  I’ve included many pictures which might be considered “bad photographic technique” where you have extremely dense shadows caused by the flash but my position is that adds to the photographs. It doesn’t detract detract from them.

DC: I wonder if the whole project is a metaphor for photography somehow.

JL: Well that’s where it starts.

DC: Tell me about that.

JL: What cameras do. I almost can’t put it any better. I could make a list of what I think certain attributes of a photograph should contain but I’ll always come across images that belie every one of those attributes and are still fascinating. It’s the same with these architecture pictures. Truthfully, I don’t really know that much about architecture. It’s not like this project grew out of an existing fascination with buildings. But I do have a fascination with the question of why you can look at the same picture hundreds or thousands of times – you know a picture so well you almost don’t have to actually see it in front of you – and it still resonates. And it’s just a picture of a door. Or a house.

Moroever, I like that I don’t know any of these photographers. That they are not established historical figures who’ve been buttressed by museums or art galleries. Was it John Szarkowski who said that photography is a promiscuous medium? A complete amateur can make an image as strong as a seasoned professional.

DC:  It’s curious how that comes to haunt photography. I published a book recently called On Photographs, which is sort of an attempt to take what’s interesting about photography away from the two things that art gets preoccupied with, which are authorship and intention. Photographs have a way of covering their traces for all that they show you. And the more that they show you, the more traces they cover in terms of what motivated them.

I’m looking at a gorgeous interior here. shows picture. You know if you think about it on a formal level you’ve got all of these tones of gray but then you do have something that’s white in the background and you do have something that’s black – that light switch panel on the left. One can relate to an image like that as if it was made by a student as a kind of technical exercise, and the rest of the picture is a kind of accidental consequence of that exercise, to get all the greys plus the black and the white in the one shot. Or one imagine the picture being made with documentation in mind, and the tonality is accidental.

JL: In this case I’d imagine it’s probably the second… But then again maybe the photographer was responding to the light and intentionally trying their best to make it beautiful…

DC: You’ve chosen a mix of the classically composed and the off-kilter, or cock-eyed. There is something interesting about that word ‘composed’ because when a viewer feels a picture is well composed, it is because it makes the viewer feel composed. It gives them composure.

Have you cropped any of these?

JL: Not too many actually. With most, the frame “worked” whatever that means. I’m not against cropping though. If I remember correctly there’s one picture of an interior where the flash has caught the very edge of the doorjamb and it didn’t work in the picture and couldn’t be corrected other than to trim it out but it was quite minimal.

DC: Let’s talk about choosing for a bit. When one is choosing from a very large archive there comes a point where one becomes slightly self-conscious about one’s own criteria.

JL: Oh, I feel completely self-conscious about that…

DC: Self-conscious from the very beginning?

JL: It is hard to say. I just feel like I know it when I see it, as vague as that sounds. What felt very self-conscious is when I had to set certain parameters. As I mentioned earlier, I noticed early on most of the pictures I was attracted to were generally made in the 1990s to early 2000s. It wasn’t so much the ones from the 1930s, 40s or 50s. If there were for instance a Model T Ford in the background it completely grounds the image in the distant past and I wanted to avoid that. It’s an odd distinction but I was okay if pictures looked old but I didn’t want them to be old. And in fact many have clues if you look closely. They have no trespassing signs that are clearly contemporary. And I noticed that most of them fit within the span of my life so I set that as a basic parameter. It should be architecture that existed within my life.

DC: you are an intensive searcher more generally.  What is motivating the search?

JL: Surpise. I wasn’t surprised then I wouldn’t have kept opening folders. Had there been five or ten pictures I would’ve just dropped them in a PDF, kept it as reference material and that would be that. It felt a little bit like, without it sounding absurd, getting to know the country a little bit. I would read some newspaper headline about a particular county – I don’t really think of the country in terms of counties but that division dictates a lot of peoples lives. All politics is local. So I would look up those counties and this archive and see if there was anything meaningful. I couldn’t simply search every folder in this archive. I had to find different ways of searching.

DC: It’s very existential. It’s not unlike a photographer roaming through the world relentlessly. They are searching for pictures and you’re searching for pictures, and you are a photographer too, so I’m curious about the kinships an  differences between a photographer roaming the world physically and someone looking through archives digitally.

JL; I was drawn to Doug Rickard’s book A New American Picture when it came out in 2012, his book of ‘street photography’ gathered from Google Street View. I’ve pulled back a bit from that work because I look at those images and the idea is fascinating, the method is fascinating, the technology is certainly fascinating but in the end, I don’t really find the pictures satisfying other than as a thought experiment. I wouldn’t substitute any of those pictures for someone physically roaming. It’s just different. Whereas, the pictures in my project are so similar to my usual practice and language of lens-based photography, in a way they are the substitute. My many photographic road trips were full of failure. In fact, this book probably partly represents me saying I couldn’t do this, so really it reminds me of my own failure.

DC: When I look through the pictures as a whole, if they are a portrait of the US, it is to do with a very precarious existence. This is a society without social safety nets, the notes of ‘ruin’ relate to this.

JL: For me that is part of the larger metaphor of the book. A general concern for the great experiment going awry or being intentionally sabotaged. There is a great deal of violence to these pictures.

I structured the sequence through my life. I grew up in a fairly middle to lower middle-class family where I have relatives that lived in somewhat ramshackle homes in New Jersey. There’s a familiarity, not so much the stuff in the deep rural south of plantation homes, that is familiar to me because of photography and people like Walker Evans and others. But places like a normal Kentucky suburb t something exotic to me. That feels quite familiar even if it isn’t exact. I remember when I lived in Arizona and we would see a house out in the desert completely abandoned and go pump it full of BBs.

DC: What about the size of your edit here, the number of pictures? It’s a large amount. There are more images than one can remember. So, there’s a sense of getting lost within it, and an indication of the vast depths of the archive as a whole. It would be very different if you made a book of 20 pictures, for example. I’m thinking of the Evans Message from the Interior 1966, which only 12 pictures and is such a different way of thinking about a portrait of a society.

JL; Yes, that book is like record album with six tracks per side. That’s minimal and very different from survey.  How many doors can you open how many rooms can you stand in and how many pictures can you digest? It is structured as a road trip, and every state is represented between the exteriors and interiors, except for Hawaii. The country is so vast that part of my failure was that the 20 disparate pictures that I made on my own road trips couldn’t even start to approach the scope of the country.

DC: There’s a peculiarly strong impulse in American art and literature to make statements about the nation. There are so many photobooks that attempt this. Then there’s the notion of the ‘great American novel’. It exists in cinema to a certain extent, people trying to make movies that are specific but also function as a comment on the whole nation.  It doesn’t happen to this extent anywhere else.

JL; I think modern North American history seems manageable… we’re talking couple hundred years, whereas in Europe…

DC: Yes, and this also means that a big chunk of “modern America”, the largest proportion of it, has been covered by photography, or taken place within its era. And it is as if North America is a kind “restart”, for good or bad, an experiment that needs constant monitoring. And the nation expects the best American culture to be a monitoring of the experiment. And maybe that’s why there are so many books with ‘America’ or ‘American’ in their title.  But there are always so many omissions, denials, disavowals in such projects.

JL; Right, and yet I find, speaking as an American, that when I see my countrymen so sure of what their image of America is, it’s often so divergent from mine. But as I mentioned, when I look at these pictures I see a kind of familiarity of my understanding of what America is. It’s misleading of course, because this historical archive is not necessarily going to include strip malls or big box stores. I think of when my parents lived in Florida you would see houses similar to ones in this book surrounded by brick-and-mortar boxes

DC: To get to the essence of the country one has look beyond the big cities, especially in the US. It’s the secondary towns, the tertiary towns. You’ve lived in Germany for quite a few years. Is the project motivated by not being in the US?

JL; Most definitely. Perhaps if I had found this archive while still living in the US I would been excited by the pictures but maybe wouldn’t feel so strongly to do something with them. The politics of the past several years has also fueled that the urge to say something. I’ve been very surprised by the country in the last several years. It kind of feels like we turned the corner, so anything for me is going to be a memory, it’s going to be this fragment from the past.

DC: Is it a farewell?

JL: I see it as a kind of odd love letter. In a way my first book The Awful German Language was kind of a love letter to my new home. Maybe this project is a bittersweet love letter to the one I left.

 

 

 

 

 

DC: I am a brit living in New York. British identity has been extraordinarily conflicted, to do with the history of empire and colonialism, and th multi-cultural quality of contemporary Britain is a result of it having been a Colonial power. It’s waning influence in the world gives it a kind of strange sense of afterwards-ness,  as well as hope, and I get the impression that the US is more than ever coming to a similar position. Its economic power is waning. It has not been a bastion of social values for a long, long time. It props itself up on its own promise, which it betrays over and over. Power is shifting within the nation and around the nation in the global sense.

 

JL: I think a lot of people are coming to terms with the darker aspects of our history and how unprogressive is. Believe taken for granted that it was impossible to succumb to an authoritarian to be ruled by a King. And the last four years In particular shaken a lot of people particularly me that this experiment could end.  how many times in the past few years if they spoken of constitutional crises? And about the end of democracy. It’s been sobering. It’s been sobering with how many people apparently are okay with that.

 

DC: Yes that’s terrifying.

 

JL; It goes back at least to Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, pushing idea that government has no place in the lives of the population. Favoring business over people and really promoting an image of the myth of the West, and self-determination and self-sufficiency. It feels like the country has turned the corner, and that definitely influenced my desire to pursue this project. I have been thinking a lot really, for the first time in my life, about what it means to be an American. I find myself caring more, I cared when I saw a wrongdoing, I cared when I saw regressive politics.

DC: Yes, and this bring us to long change, beyond election cycles and how architecture fits into longer cultural wavelengths. The endurance of architecture – buildings and styles – cautions us against reading a façade as a script for society. It has a slightly suspended relation to all that.

I was listening to a radio interview with an architectural historian, a specialist on London architecture. She was noting how most people still somehow aspire to live in a Georgian or Victorian House. But the interesting thing about that architecture is that it was so well-built because it was built for rental. And people building for rental didn’t want to have to keep repairing so they built it to last. If you make buildings for sale, it is going to be shoddy because the profit is made on the sale alone. So, the impetus for the architect and the project manager is to cut as many corners as possible. But now we’re caught in this bind where people want to own a kind of architecture that was built for rental. Suddenly London housing made total sense to me. The reading of the economics and culture of architecture is totally fascinating but it’s often quite opaque until it’s pointed out.