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Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The Non-Place

One of the more popular subjects in Modern Serious Photography is the non-place. This is generally an urban area, or suburban, with a lot of strip malls, vacant storefronts, that kind of thing. The places we recognize as failures of some sort of urban planning. Not picturesque old places, relatively new places (say, less than 50 years old.) Sometimes they're not even failures, except to snobs.

A bustling strip mall filled with profitable but down-market chain stores is, from this perspective, just as awful or perhaps worse than if it were half vacant.

The conceit here is that these architectural markers indicate a failure of community. This is flyover country. This is where Trump voters, or Tories, live. This is where the unwashed masses live. This is a non-place, a non-community, a sort of metaphor for hell. Capital built this stuff, and it has destroyed everything. Capital is very bad, and also I would like a lot more of it.

It's great material for the normal Art Project idea, because it stands in for Everything That's Wrong. You can write some jargon about income inequality or about the rise of fascism or of racism with equal ease, and it all reads the same.

In general, people are not shown in these projects, or if they are they're shown in very specific ways. See, for instance, Kleinstadt by the Mahlers, which featured the gloomiest lot of young people ever consigned to film. Once you've got your dismal non-place architecturally, you can shove some gloomy non-people in there to complete the scene.

None of this is real.

Yes, I feel it too. I've lived much of my life in flyover country, but I was raised an intellectual, and have spent important formative years on the coasts. I am a classic coastal elite, even to the point of hating coastal elitism which is now a standard part of the uniform.

Strip malls give me the creeps. I am repelled by down-market pizza brands.

But at the same time I recognize that places are not made by architecture. Places are made by people. Communities are made by people. Teenagers having a laugh and drinking shoplifted beer in the wretched park up the hill from the 7-11 is a universal, it doesn't depend on being on the coast, or having a certain percentage of PhDs in your community. Friends are made. Love happens, and un-happens, everywhere. Victories and tragedies occur. Books are, from time to time, written. Art is made. Songs are sung. Music is composed.

Community is a thing that happens when there are people around. Humanity in all its registers happens wherever there are humans, even in the presence of strip malls.

It is well established that architecture and urban design contribute enormously to quality of life. A well designed urban system creates happier, more fulfulled people. A badly designed urban system does not, however, crush all humanity to a miserable robotic existence. To propose that it does is an insult to everyone who lives there.

There's no shortage of people who will tell you that, basically, you can't photograph poor people. You can't photograph Appalachia. You can't do this, you can't do that, because it's bad representation and you are committing violence, and so forth.

Often, those very same people think nothing of going out to photograph strip malls and, and rambling on about the existential horror of the "non-place" which is equally bad representation, and which is at the same time an outright lie.

I've taken these photos, and I know you have to wait for the smiling beautiful girl to get out of frame. You have to wait for the lads laughing at a joke to move along. You have to walk ten feet left to avoid including the couple holding hands. I know how to make this lie, and I know it is a lie.

Yes, the architecture is shit, and not conducive to the best possible life. And yet, people continue to life full, rich, lives.

There is no such thing as a non-place.

If there are people there, in human terms it is somewhere.


  1. It's true that humans can adapt to almost anything, but it's a shame that they have to. I'm less bothered by places that deteriorate over time, for whatever reason, everything has a shelf life. But when they're designed ugly in the first place, that's unnecessary misery.

  2. Having been born and grown up in one of England's notorious post-war "New Towns", this is a subject close to my heart. I came across a passage in a book, years ago, which I transcribed into a notebook but unfortunately can't find just now. In effect, it says, "we sociologists are studying these kids growing up in new-build estates and New Towns, and we see them as dystopic places, where only alienation and inauthenticity can flourish; but, one day, there will be a generation of adults who have grown up in such places, and for them these streets will have become sites of nostalgia and authenticity".