Saturday, November 24, 2007

'American Ruins' x 3

I was looking through the latest issue of photo-eye, and I came across an ad for Merrell Publishers. Featured was a photography book by Arthur Drooker titled American Ruins.

As you may remember, photographer Camilo Jose Vergara is one of my favorite photogs, and I recently asked him to autograph my copy of his book American Ruins (first published in 1999).

I also work with Ars Subterranea, and we've screened the work-in-progress film of a couple of our members, Bryan Papciak and Jeff Sias. The film is titled American Ruins, and its website can be found at

One of my friends and collaborators pointed out to me today the first line of the "Book Description" of Drooker's book on "American Ruins" is the first photography book to document historic ruins throughout the United States." ?!?!?!

It seems like a few people didn't do their research; photographers have been shooting historic ruins in America for many years now. Clarence John Laughlin and his book Haunter of Ruins come immediately to mind, just because now I'm thinking about my favorite photographers. Laughlin is most commonly referred to as a surrealist, but Haunter of Ruins features abandoned and deserted New Orleans buildings, which are pretty darn American. He was most active in the 1940s-60s. I'm sure somebody precedes him as well....

"American Ruins", the name and phrase, is genius and catchy. I understand this. It is not an excuse for it to be the only catchphrase that captures the movement of photographing significant abandoned American buildings.

Mr. Vergara's and Mr. Drooker's works are quite different. Simplistically stated, Vergara's is content driven. His photography is similar to Richard Avedon's (another one of my favorite photogs), in that it is direct and relies on its subject to provide the visual thrills. Drooker's work is romantic, mostly engineered by its use of infrared photography but also by the photos' compositions. I strongly prefer Vergara's style.

I also find it offputting that the main image used on several of American Ruins' (the film) webpages is so similar to Drooker's book cover.

Boo to Merrell, and yes, boo to Drooker as well.

A seldom-viewed Clarence John Laughlin image, interesting particularly in its subject location -
The Head in the Wall [building being demolished, near 2nd and K Streets, N.W., Washington, D.C.]
[Poems of Desolation]

While I was studying photography as a post-grad student in the early 90's, I traveled to New Orleans a couple of times and visited a photo gallery that had a few Laughlin prints and sold his books. This alone made my visits to New Orleans worthwhile; that's how strongly Laughlin's work affected me.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Not in my neighborhood?

I do like to explore abandoned buildings, and my recent trip to Detroit was my first opportunity to explore an abandoned house. Located in the Highland Park neighborhood, the house looked like a single- or two-family home from the front, but once we got inside, the halls and rooms went on forever. Our guess was that it was a six-family apartment building. When looking at it from the side, there were two structures (built at the same time, exactly the same way) with an attachment. (I know that there's an architectural term for this, sorry!)

With the exception of Detroit and other equally-abandoned cities, it seems that finding abandoned homes is a little more difficult than finding an abandoned school, insane asylum, etc. The economic reality of an individual is both less and more fluid than that of a corporation or municipality. For example, it would be a hardship for a working-class individual or family to leave to a house behind; they sell it (even for a low price, I would think). But they would want those funds and probably that closure. (Of course, they could sell it to a developer who does nothing with the property.) On the other hand, an individual dies and families move away.

There's an abandoned house on my block, and I'd love to know the story behind it. My neighborhood is pretty packed with houses; ours was built in 1906/08 and is 5 feet away from the neighboring house on one side and 2 feet away from the other house. Building is happening in my neighborhood, but due to the long-time residents, is a neighborhood in which most of the residences couldn't afford if they were to start from scratch in their homebuying. (ie: Their mean income couldn't afford to buy the property they own.) It's a nice, but old-style neighborhood.

Our house is at the bottom of a hill, near the main street. We rarely see the abandoned house at the top of the hill, except when somebody drives us home or when we rent a car and drive through the neighborhood looking for a parking spot. But it used to upset me that an abandoned house existed in our neighborhood. What about the value of the houses next to the abandoned place? Abandoned houses are great, but not in my neighborhood.

I've chilled on it a little. Live and let live. If I started researching the history of this house (and its owners), I'd probably look like a snoop. (Nonetheless, I might do so.) I find it intriguing that the owner doesn't sell the house for the land value. Where is the owner? I should've started photographing this house when we moved into the neighborhood three years ago...

Somebody's taking caring of this house a little bit, ie: the anti-littering sign and other small changes that I've seen over the years. Who?

When we first moved into the 'hood, I thought the house was locked tight. It isn't, and there are two easy ways to enter. The house isn't very stable, though, so I nixed walking around inside.

Here's a comparison shot of the house and its next-door neighboor. Of course, the shrubbery is overgrown. The sky is visible through the ceiling and roof; you can see a little of that in this photo. Since parking really is at a premium in our neighborhood, a 20-something couple parked their new candy apple-colored car in the driveway, while we were looking around and taking photos, and walked down the hill, presumably to a restaurant.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

energy audit

A couple of weeks ago, we had an energy audit of our house. We've been wanting one since we bought our house three years ago, but it's taken us a while to find somebody that we thought was objective enough to provide us just with the service of the audit.

The Association for Energy Affordability (AEANYC) charges $350 for an energy audit, and they do provide a report afterwards that gives you estimated cost of work. If you move forward with any of their suggestions, they will provide the contractors and also follow-up afterwards to monitor the various numbers.

The AEANYC also has programs for low-income families, to help the homeowner get a maximum amount of money back from the government to compensate for energy efficient changes made to the home and also to finance changes in a low-rate loan. We do not fit in that category, but AEANYC will still help us with rebates that are due to us, should we make changes.

This entry's photo shows the contraption that was placed on our door for a blower door test, which measures how much heating and cooling escape through unseen cracks and gaps in doors, windows, etc. When the blower door fan is turned on, the house gets very cool and drafty. We could even feel drafts when we placed our hands over electrical outlets!

Our house is 100 years old, so we had quite a few drafts. Our house also has no insulation. Ed installed fluorescent bulbs when we moved in, so that was already done. Other changes that were recommended to us in the report (received 2 weeks later) include low flow water devices, a CO detector directly above our stove (our only current one is linked to our fire and alarm system), a digital thermostat, and a new boiler.

AEANYC likes to look at energy audits as processes, not as a series of stand-alone factors. For example, the auditor asked us if temperature control in our basement and attic mattered to us. (It doesn't.)This allows for the creation of "zones" that need to be heated and cooled efficiently and those that are less of a priority.

Making some of these changes will pay themselves off in 10 years, and some will take longer. (Low flow water devices would have a quick payoff for us, for example; they're inexpensive and would save water costs immediately.) Some increase the value of the home, and some don't. (Insulation would increase the value of our home.) Some just would make things a lot more comfortable. ("Heated Area Infiltration Reduction 1" would make cold days more bearable.) These are the factors that we're going to think about when we meet with AEANYC in the next couple of weeks to move forward.

It was nice to get actual numbers behind some of our actualities and where we should be. Getting back to the blower door test (easily the sexiest part of the audit): Our house had a reading of 4800 CFM50, and AEANYC would like to lower that to 2800 CFM50. The current industry standard is 1030.98 CFM50. [The CFM50 is explained here.] (It should be noted that they measured every room in the blower door test, but the report gives us one total number.)

The recommendation we received is for $21,968 in work, which has a simple annual payback of 18.6 years. $10K of this is to replace our 1968 model boiler, which could be more efficient but isn't quite inefficient. (In other words, improvement would be marginal, so this increases the payback period significantly while emptying our wallets quickly.) I don't see a new boiler in our immediate future, but I am fantasizing about insulation and "Heated Area Infiltration Reduction."