Vanishing America

Photographs by Michael Eastman
Foreword by Douglas Brinkley
Rizzoli International Publications

Reviewed by Joshua Spees

Issue 5

A few months ago I came across the work of Michael Eastman in a gallery in Santa Fe. The prints were enormous and beautiful, yet so large that I could never imagine owning one. So goes the trend in modern photography I suppose, but there were a few photos from that show that really stuck in my mind. When Rizzoli contacted me about reviewing the book I really wanted to see how the work translated from prints to book form.

I grew up in a town that could have easily been the central focus for this book. The stores are all closing down and everyone drives an hour or more away to shop now. The only thriving businesses are bars and the only places to fill the seats are churches. The mid-west is full of towns exactly the same, boarded up and closed for business.

When the book arrived I was a little surprised by the size. At 192 pages it seemed a little hefty. Not that I mind getting more bang for the buck, but quantity and quality do not always go hand in hand. Eastman has been photographing for the past thirty years on this project allowing for much fodder to choose from. Upon opening the book I found not only an enormous amount of pages, but even more photos.

 The book’s layout is one of my greatest complaints. Quite often in the book there are two or three photos on one page with no border in between and butted right up against one another. While this does allow for multitudes of photos in the book it does not allow for many of the photos to be looked at without others distracting from it.

Eastman’s list of influences has to include many of the 20th century masters. He has an amazing eye and a superb talent for making great photos. His talent works especially well on the signage of yesteryear and the patterns created by them. These dilapidated words on the wall write our past and at the same time tell of where our future is headed.

The book is loaded down with nostalgia for times and places that have been forgotten. We all have a certain pang of remembrance for the America that has been lost and often romanticize it even though it is our own choices that have left it behind. The world of Interstates has bypassed Main Street and there is little we can do about it on our current cultural and social path. Eastman seems to be able to find wonder and beauty in this decay. The work is devoid of people, yet at the same time cannot live without them. The human presence is everywhere in the work. The booths in the diners, the chairs along the wall, and the writing on the blinds all have a museum-like quality about them.

In the end this book has less of an effect on me than seeing the work in person. It has nothing to do with the size of the images, in fact the large prints do less for me than the images in the book do, but the show contained a tightly knit group of images edited down from the book. The gallery group did a better job of creating emotion and informing the viewer than did the multitude of images within the book.

 If your penchant is for a time gone by and a love for Main Street America then this may well be the book for you. Eastman has an amazing ability for seeing the architecture and covered framework of what once was America, a country of small towns all building and dreaming towards something greater.