There is an old farmhouse on the edge of the town where I live that has stood forlorn and empty for as long as I can remember. It’s shabby, but it has, as architects are wont to say, “good bones.” Sometimes I think I’d like to buy it and fix it up. Other times I think I should get Brian Vanden Brink to photograph it.
Brian Vanden Brink of Camden, Maine, is one of New England’s premier architectural photographers. His supremely tasteful and well-lit photographs of elegant new homes have graced the pages of Architectural Digest, Architectural Record, Metropolitan Home, Coastal Living, Down East, and Yankee for years. But Brian’s personal passion is abandoned buildings. Wherever he goes in the country to make commissioned architectural photographs, he seeks out deserted homes, crumbling businesses, even derelict bridges.
Back in 1999, in the first contribution I ever made to Photo District News (PDN), I wrote about Brian’s portraits of abandoned buildings. Ten years later, those photographs are the subject and content of a handsome new book, Ruin: Photographs of a Vanishing America (Down East Books, 2009, $65 hardcover). Ruin features 50 color photographs and 70 black and whites of abandoned homes, churches, stores, mills, bridges, grain elevators, and military installations, all captured in the same painstaking way and with the same appreciative eye that Brian Vanden Brink brings to new architecture. Ruin is like a visit to a ghost town that happens to be scattered across a continent.
While many of the weathered and woeful old buildings are located in Maine, Brian also documents mining towns in Colorado, farmsteads on Maryland, mills in Massachusetts, plantations and places of worship in Mississippi, sodbusters cabins in Nebraska, shotgun houses in Louisiana, and roadside diners in California, all empty, abandoned, lost and unloved except by a photographer with a peculiar penchant for old buildings.
In most cases, the useful lives of these man-made structures are over, but among my sentimental favorites in Ruin are Vanden Brink’s suite of nine fine black and white photographs of the old Bowdoin Mill complex in Topsham, Maine. I wandered through these cavernous buildings myself in the 1990s when I was on the staff of Maine Times, then housed in the administration building of the Bowdoin Mill. Today, the mill on the Androscoggin has been lovingly renovated as office, studio, and commercial spaces.
Here in New England, we all inhabit the past. That point is graphically made in another new book, Designing the Maine Landscape (Down East Books, 2009. $50 hardcover) by landscape architect Theresa Mattor and writer Lucie Teegarden. Designing the Maine Landscape almost seems a companion piece to Ruin, the preservation of historic landscapes standing in counterpoint to the neglect of the buildings.
In text, photographs, vintage prints, postcards, and plans, Mattor and Teegarten survey great private estates and gardens, public parks, college campuses, golf courses, cemeteries, and planned urban settlements all over Maine, exploring and illustrating how the landscapes we tend to take for granted were created by designers past such as Beatrix Farrand, Hans Heisted, Frederick Law Olmsted (both Senior and Junior), and Charles Savage.
Published jointly by Down East Books and the Maine Olmsted Alliance for Parks & Landscapes, Designing the Maine Landscape is a lovely armchair stroll through the past on its way to becoming the present. I recommend both it and Ruin highly to anyone interested in the built environment and man-altered landscape.