By BRUCE DENNILL
Forgotten Heritage by Matthew Emmett 5.5
Abandoned Asylums by Matt Van der Velde 6.5
After The Final Curtain by Matt Lambros 7
The lure of the forsaken is celebrated in several ways in popular culture, from the cabins in dark forests in every second slasher film to the recent slew of accounts featuring, well, abandoned everything. Visually, such subject matter is enormously appealing, largely because such pictures are worth more than a thousand words. What is on the page is fascinating, whether it’s the elegance of crumbling architecture, the power of nature as it reclaims a site or the adventure involved in getting to a particular location. But what is suggested – unwritten, and open to different interpretations depending on the the observer’s experience – is profoundly more engaging. What was in each frame when the structure in question was being used for its original purpose somehow stays in the picture via some ectomplasmic transfer process, adding poignancy, mystery, history and sometimes tragedy to the story.
All of this is already clear to the community of amateur photographers who regularly post such pictures in their Instagram feeds, but it takes a brave publisher to put out a series of glossy, large-format hardcover coffee table books exploring aspects of the phenomenon. Fortunately, such plucky folk do exist, and French company Jonglez Publishing’s output includes, among much else, titles including Forgotten Heritage, Abandoned Asylums and After The Final Curtain. Curiously, all of them are by authors and photographers named Matthew, but that’s probably not a prerequisite should you one day hope to join their roster.
Forgotten Heritage is the largest book but also the least charming. It has a wide scope of subject matter, from old houses to deserted military facilities, which is wonderfully informative, but Matthew Emmett’s approach (and that of his contemporaries in this niche) involves trespassing on private property – and making a feature of his derring-do in the text supporting the images. It’s a discomfiting approach up front, but had Emmett simply explained his tactics once and left it there, it might have made for easier interaction with the content. As it is, there’s the feeling of repeatedly chatting to a slightly insecure friend who feels he has to assure all who are listening of his prowess at whatever he’s doing, which distracts slightly from some genuinely fascinating focal points.
Abandoned Asylums is better, combining a more respectful, intellectual approach with spectacular visuals courtesy of both photographer Matt Van der Velde and the architects who thought that sanitaria should look like castles and chateaux – and sometimes both as once. Of course, it’s difficult to imagine a setting in which melancholy is more infused in the fabric of a building than an asylum, so the pictures convey buckets of emotion (often sadness) as well as architectural intrigue. Van der Velde has also communicated an appreciable depth of research in an accessible way, looking at everything from some of the more notorious procedures that were conceived in some of these establishments to the hospitals’ most tragic past patients. The sheer size of and investment involved in some of the campuses he visits is mind-boggling, particularly because all of the locations Van der Velde investigates are in the US, currently home of a president who wants only people rich enough to afford home-base care to have medical aid. This is an absorbing historical document, and it asks a number of questions about the way we treat those on the fringes of society that won’t be easily answered by readers.
Best of the trio is After The Final Curtain by Matt Lambros, possibly because it explores a phenomenon most contemporary readers (well, certainly South African readers) won’t have much experience of – the massive, sumptuously decorated American movie theatres of the mid 20th Century. There’s a thread of both joy and sadness that runs through the book – joy because there was a time when businesspeople thought that films (silent and then with soundtracks), vaudeville and various other types of theatre were brilliant products to invest in and sadness because this publication would not exist if their strategy had paid off. The structures they created were mesmerizingly beautiful, ornate to the point of folly and as such entirely capable of evoking the sort of atmosphere that goes with the phrase “theatre of dreams”. A recurring theme is that the buildings featured here have been the subject of repeated efforts to rehabilitate them and to relaunch the entertainments that made them popular in the first place. The current costs of doing so generally undermine sustained success, though the one example where such work has gone ahead – Loew’s Kings Theatre in Brooklyn – looks so utterly fantastic that you can understand the impractical desire to keep trying. This is a book packed with fantasies and aspirations, and that aspect of the narrative keeps shining through the bleakness of most of the photographs.