Teasing Out the American Dream with Jeff Brouws

Jeff BrouwsThe Highway Landscape: Motel Drive, Fresno, California 1991

Jeff Brouws
, born in San Francisco in 1955, is a self-taught artist. Pursuing photography since age 13, where he roamed the railroad and industrial corridors of the South Bay Peninsula, Brouws has compiled a visual survey of America’s evolving rural, urban and suburban cultural landscapes. Using single photographs as subtle narrative and compiling typologies to index the nation’s character, he revels in the “readymades” found in many of these environments. Influenced by the New Topographic Movement, the artist books of Ed Ruscha (to whom Brouws paid homage with his Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations project in 1992) as well as the writings of cultural geographers like J.B. Jackson, Dolores Hayden and John Stilgoe, Brouws has combined anthropological inquiry and a bleak aesthetic beauty mining the overlooked, the obsolete, the mundane and Brouws is trying to tease out exactly what the American Dream is
. It is a dream that has run its course?

You’ve been actively photographing the American cultural Landscape for about 25 years and exploring the elements of roadside culture. Looking back on your work could you talk about how your photography evolved visually and intellectually?
I have been photographing various aspects of the American landscape in its rural, urban and suburban forms for over two decades—like a visual anthropologist with a camera searching for a meaning and pattern behind the cycle of growth and construction, entropy and decay, in American society. The cultural geography, urban history, and public policy I study to enhance my image-making might resemble, to some, random pieces of a disparate socioeconomic puzzle. For me, all of the parts form a tight, complex weave. But this coming together of thought and process didn’t emerge overnight; it took fifteen years of reading and making photographs to finally understand the interrelationships, and to produce images more aligned with my mental note-taking.

As my work progressed, I came to realize I’ve long had a major interest in buildings and infrastructures and what they signify in human and sociopolitical terms. Looking at all types of built environments in the United States—from the newly constructed outlet mall in Minneapolis, to the crumbling remnants of abandoned gasoline stations, to the embattled ruins of segregated inner cities—I’ve posed questions to myself. Just what societal, economic, or historical conditions caused these places to develop, flourish, and frequently lapse into decline and disuse?

It took me a similar period of time to appreciate the multidimensionality of a photograph: that a photograph can be read in various ways and through various philosophical systems; that beauty often merges with political or social content, even when those qualities seem at cross-purposes. I learned that photographs are tricky things: they can convey manifold narratives while simultaneously withholding the complete story; they can seduce us with their allure, and beautify a subject we normally might not deem beautiful. Because of this complexity, a picture’s deeper intention and meaning may not be readily apparent to the viewer. That’s why I often write about my work—to supplement the visuals and hopefully enhance the viewers understanding of what I’m up to.

When I began working along the American roadside—which was the first project I tackled involving the everyday, man-made landscape—I was driven to uncover what the cultural geographer John Brinckerhoff Jackson has referred to as “a private kind of vernacular past.” My early pathway into photography and this particular project was through humble architectural forms, signage, and symbolism (often expressed through the inclusion of cars) that I found in the sometimes boisterous, unplanned spaces adjacent to secondary roads. From this early point I was also focused on aesthetic / formal issues, often referencing other contemporary photographers I admired. The color work of Richard Misrach and the understated yet intentional formalism of Lewis Baltz’s and Joe Deal’s images found their way into my pictures. The undercurrent of socioeconomic concerns that would later inform my work intellectually remained dormant, and didn’t emerge until after I had completed a half-decade of road photography.

In these earlier photographs I was attracted to the older commercial establishments that were the basis of much roadside culture: the gas stations, motels, and cafes. As the final segments of the interstate system fell into place in 1984, effectively choking off the remaining two lanes across the United States, each trip became a hunt for remnants before they were “bulldozed into modernization” or gentrified into a simulacrum of their former selves. Many places languished in decaying abandonment, which lent urgency to my work. During this phase I began to fully mine the available literature across the spectrum of cultural geography, with continuous delving into the works of J. B. Jackson and others. The lucid content of his essays led to “a conversion experience to a new way of looking at the built environment.”. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour’s seminal study Learning from Las Vegas also lent a crucial element to my understanding of the strip and roadside architecture; buildings that seemed bland, or not worth paying attention to, took on new significance. Contradicting Venturi’s embrace of the “decorated shed,” James Howard Kunstler’s potent tirade against placelessness and argument for the sanctity of small-town America—as articulated in his seminal book The Geography of Nowhere — also found space on my night table. Accepting the diversity and democracy of the man-built environment, while being influenced by divergent viewpoints about that landscape, broadened the range of what I photographed and how I thought about the shifts that were occurring in America. Tangentially, I also began to consider roads as places of consequence: as nodes of vital infrastructure, central to a consumer society’s dependency on the transportation of goods and services.

In short, I started thinking about the cultural ramifications of what I was looking at: the history that fostered and shaped roadside development (tangentially it later became how the growth of suburbia impacted older urban environments). I began to see my work aligned with urban geographers who had created an acronym (TOADS) for much of what I was attracted to: the poetics of Temporary, Obsolete, Abandoned, Derelict (architectural) Sites. Not only did these sites prove to be photographically provocative, but as I delved into this type of subject—like my Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations project—these buildings and places also posed questions about economics, government and environmental regulations, consumerism, and human geography. They also led me to ponder the ruin-as-contemporary-artifact. Through Jackson’s well-known essay entitled The Necessity for Ruins, I realized the important cultural function they served, making us aware of cycles of ascendancy, stagnation, decay, and rejuvenation—a time span with symbolic parallels to life itself. The discontinuity ruins represent also elicits the kind of emotional response human beings have to loss (of place), and perhaps they act as a reminder of our own mortality. Some pine for the lost era the demise of these buildings and places represented. I, however, wasn’t interested in nostalgia, a term Walker Evans once defined as the “blurry vision which destroys the actuality of the past. I was drawn instead to documenting the “historical contemporary” and investigating these locations as components of an ever-changing commercial landscape generated by a society in flux. Also intriguing to consider was the possibility that today’s thriving business site could become tomorrow’s ruin. This forced me to start thinking about making photographs of the latest manifestations of the built commercial environment—freeways, strip malls or big boxes—to see, quoting Evans again, “what the present looks like as the past” ten or twenty years into the future. When viewed through the prism of elapsing time, everything became interesting. Contemplating the history, social changes, and public policy that might have had a hand in shaping or altering these environments helped put some intellectual meat on the bone in terms of my photographic practice. This led me to my current interest [which is an inversion of the New Topographics premise which asked how the man-made suburban world affected the natural environment] to ask how the build-out of suburbia impacted urban areas as societally we moved from a centralized lifestyle to a car-centered, decentralized one in the 1950s and 60s. That’s how I got involved with de-industrialization and inner city environments.

Jeff BrouwsThe Franchised Landscape: I-40, Tennessee, 1997
Jeff BrouwsThe Franchised Landscape: Superstore Under Construction, Indiana 2004

Do you remember the feeling of having your first exhibition back in 1980 at the Visible Light Gallery, Santa Barbara, California?
Yes, it was very exciting. This particular gallery was started as a collective by several local artists as an alternative art / exhibition space to what was then presently available in the city, which wasn’t much. Many people that were associated with it — like Wayne McCall — became important mentors and inspiration points for me.

As a self-taught artist, do you think it is harder to make your way through the art scene if one hasn’t emerged from an academic environment?
That’s tough to answer having never been part of academia. I know there are several programs in the United States—like those at Columbia College in Chicago, and say Yale’s MFA program—where many of the leading American photographers have studied, and perhaps curators tend to pay more attention to work emerging from those venues. These younger artists have had the opportunity to enmesh themselves in cross-disciplinary pursuits that an academic environment affords, which raises the quality of work being done in many cases. They also have daily access to first-rate artists who are also instructors and mentors. It stands to reason curators or art historians might look to these places for the latest developments. Nevertheless, good work is good work, and perhaps not having been academy-trained brings a different sensibility to the fore too. I can think of many photographers I admire who have emerged from both camps. Over and above the academic question though, today’s fine-art photography field is tremendously crowded, which sometimes makes it difficult to navigate or get recognized. As someone who isn’t into extensive self-promotion or marketing however, I tend to just keep my head down, make the work, and not concern myself with these issues that essentially I have no control over.

Your images are in collections like the SFMOMA, The Whitney Museum of American Art and in the J. Paul Getty Museum. What or how is the process of getting a photograph in such collections?
Generally, either a museum purchases work outright, the artist donates it, or a collector affiliated with a particular institution donates it. I’ve had all three instances occur over the course of my career.

Jeff BrouwsDiscarded Landscape #23, Abandoned manufacturing plant in mixed-use neighborhood, Detroit. Michigan, 2006
Jeff BrouwsDiscarded Landscape #8, Burnt-out house in Ravenswood neighborhood, Detroit. Michigan, 1999

Things in Germany are smaller compared to suburban strip malls and fast food chains in America. Nevertheless we all face the same problems; undeveloped land disappears under concrete and asphalt while Superstores arise. Do you think this “creative destruction” will lead people to think different someday?
I hope so. I see our present civilization in some sort of “end game” mode. It’s as if we’re bursting at the seams from our collective gluttony and I think many people now realize this consumerist paradigm isn’t sustainable from an ecological and sociological standpoint. That word “sustainability” has come to the forefront over the last decade; some of the younger generation is really embracing this concept from a lifestyle perspective and taking it seriously, as they should. I see more interest in social justice issues with many of my contemporaries, in and out of the art world. In an area I’m especially interested in—urban policy—we’ve seen tremendous strides in city planning over the last decade: high-rises that use to house and segregate the urban poor have been demolished and converted to more humane forms of housing, ones concentrating on mixed-raced, mixed income, and mixed age groups. This is a much more holistic and integrated approach. One can only hope that as a populace we Americans (and maybe all the world’s citizens) learn to think more critically in the future about social issues across the board, and not just accept the existence of underlying public or private structures / systems that govern daily life, but to challenge them and change them when necessary. Perhaps we need to tear down old systems of thought to make way for something new and different. “Creative Destruction” at its best.

If we think about the movement of capital and the cycles of construction I’m thinking of your new photographic series. Do you think this is because of the restlessness of mankind?
I think these cycles all relate to the restlessness of capital and capitalism. Money wants to be put to work and all landscapes are “capital.” From America’s inception, the first settlers wished to tame the landscape and commodify it. Things haven’t changed.

Can you tell us one story that influenced your way of thinking about America?
There is no one particular story that shaped my feelings about America or American culture. Many writers and artists over the years have found existence in the United States problematic and have been critical of it, and created artwork or written essays reflecting their ambivalence. Writers like Charles Bukowski, Jean Baudrillard, or Mike Davis … or artists Edward Hopper or Ed Ruscha have influenced me. I’m following in that tradition of what I think they’re up to: of trying to tease out exactly what the American Dream is, and perhaps calling into question its validity for the majority of my countrymen. It is a dream that has run its course?

Jeff BrouwsTwentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations #37, 34, 29 and 45  1993

You’re the author of seven photography books. Is there a new publication coming up?
Yes there is. Not a book of my own photographs but certainly tangential to what I’m up. I’m working with four other artist / writers at the moment—Hermann Zschiegner, Mark Rawlinson, Phil Taylor and Wendy Burton—on an interesting project called VARIOUS SMALL BOOKS: Referencing the Work of Ed Ruscha (working title).

Here’s some background. Over the past 30 years numerous books inspired by Ruscha’s seminal photobooks from the 1960s and 70s have been created by established artists, writers, and some relatively unknown admirers from all over the world. The artists included run the gamut from Bruce Nauman to younger artists like Mark Wyse and Martin Moll. Both Hermann and I published our own tributes to Ruscha. Mine was entitled Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations from 1992 (as stated above), and his was Thirty-four Parking Lots on Google Earth from 2006.  We have both collected Ruscha’s books over the years and have met and become friends with collectors and other artists who have also been inspired by Ruscha’s work. For the purposes of VARIOUS SMALL BOOKS we’re utilizing Zschiegner collection—he has more than 85+ of these homages to Ruscha—which will form the basis of the publication. Hermann is an obsessed, voracious collector and a splendid artist in his own right. And here’s a cool point: without the Internet (which is how Hermann and I met four years ago when we began swapping art pieces) this project might not be happening; our collaboration began long before we ever got together in person.

VARIOUS SMALL BOOKS will be 300+ pages, four-color throughout, with 1-2 spreads devoted to each project. Text will include an extended essay by Dr. Mark Rawlinson, who is a lecturer of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham. Titled “Appropriately Mundane Project”, 
Rawlinson will write about three things: appropriation, the mundane, and the notion of the “project.” A lot has been written about appropriation in the past but considerably less on the mundane (as an kind of aesthetic category) and on the “project.” Clearly, all three of these terms relate to Ruscha’s early photoconceptualist books. Mark and I met three years ago at a symposium on the “Everyday in American Visual Culture” in England and became fast friends. He’s an authority on U. S. post-WWII photography, with a special interest in the New Topographics … and so is a perfect fit for the project. Lewis Baltz once stated that he thought Ruscha’s deadpan aesthetic was the precursor to that important movement in American photography. Considering Rawlinson’s wide-ranging focus he brings a dynamic intellectual synergy to the party.

Independent of Mark’s essay Phil Taylor—a New York-based curator and art historian with an emphasis on the history of photography and modern and contemporary art—will compose extended descriptive captions and commentary for each homage entry. Phil was once Robbert Flick’s assistant (another contributor to the book) so he brings a special brand of insight to the proceedings too.

Wendy Burton—an artist and contributor as well—is our project manager. With so many artists involved there are tremendous logistics to deal with keeping track of everything, as you might imagine. She’s proven indispensable to the endeavor.

Given the high profile. worldwide interest in Mr. Ruscha’s work and the fact that many of these “homage” books have been done in small editions and thus not widely known, we’re all quite excited to be involved with the project. We see it as a welcome edition to the growing canon and archive of art-historical material and critical analysis surrounding Ruscha and this important segment of his oeuvre.  The book will be published by Steidl in Spring 2012.

You can get Jeff Brouws’s last book Approaching Nowhere here. And if you want to read more about the book, please find our Approaching Nowhere review here.

© All copyright remains with photographer Jeff Brouws.