Forward

Excerpt from Forward by Kim Nicolini

Mark Hahn’s new collection of photographs Empty Spaces is a beautiful and haunting document of a new kind of American landscape, a 21st century geography populated by the ghosts of fallen dreams and a failed economy. In response to the Ansel Adams school of American nature photography, William Eggleston once said that the new American wilderness could be found in the suburban supermarket. But what happens when the American dream that pushed nature into the supermarket collapses? A new geography arises, a landscape littered with the remnants of an economic glut that ultimately proved as empty as the buildings left standing in its wake.

After America’s 2008 economic collapse, Hahn began photographing failed and vacated businesses, a landscape of fallen dreams where the ornamentation of a romanticized America has been reduced to the naked geometry of empty architectural space. The result is a profoundly beautiful vision of a new kind of American ruins. All the buildings in the collection are products of the post-Reaganomics era of free trade and deregulation. Photographed in strip malls in the boom-or-bust American southwest, these empty spaces represent an aesthetic evacuation as well as a human and economic one.

Hahn’s photos don’t romanticize the ruins of some distant past. These are relics of recent history located in cheap functional spaces. These buildings and storefronts were created to serve one purpose – to provide a location for business transactions. The spaces in these photos are so generic and devoid of ornament that no specific evidence of the businesses they actually housed remains. They are anonymous skeletons of economic exchange standing dead in strip malls. Their names have been wiped clean from their surface, and their identifying details have been emptied along with the bank accounts that funded the failed dreams to which these empty spaces bear witness.

Hahn’s photos are not just landscapes without nature: they are portraits without people. The photographs of these buildings don’t just show the ravaged remnants of free trade found in architectural space, they also capture the vestiges of the dreams of economic prosperity left behind by the people who believed in a system that failed them.  The ghostly reminders of human presence within the space of utter absence transform these photographs into images of transcendental beauty that document an era of overwhelming economic despair.

At first glance, many people may see these photos as nothing more than the title of the collection connotes, “empty spaces,” and they may wonder why a person would spend so much time trying to capture the absence of life. But what makes these photographs so stunning and breathtaking is that, even when documenting dead space, they are far from empty. It is life within the emptiness that Hahn so masterfully captures. Sure, there is a formalism to these photographs that harkens back to early twentieth century Modernist aesthetics, but that does not mean that the photos are devoid of life.

Like the work of such modernists as Rodchenko, Mondrian and Charles Sheeler, Hahn’s photos are an exercise in reduction. They reveal manmade environments as topographies of planes that come to life through negative space generated by elemental forms within the frame. The austere geometry and formal compositions that Hahn delineates within the minimal architecture of these evacuated businesses relies on the aesthetics of modernism to carve out a new vision of beauty out of the wreckage of the Postmodern economy.

Although the spaces in these photos are filled with a tight system of forms and the empty terrain of what is missing, Hahn’s manipulation of the aesthetics of emptiness brings the places back to life. The tension between planes (a desk, a door, a counter, a floor), the play between shadow and light, and the trace evidence of human occupation within the photos (a cup, a chair, a phone line) activate the emptiness with an energy or aura that emanates from the smallest of details and the spaces between them. In a way, the spaces are activated by their own sense of deactivation. Hahn’s photographs are not just empty exercises in form and light. Because these “found” spaces were actually occupied by people who thought they could buy into the American dream, they can never be completely sanitized of their humanity. The images may represent a kind of void, but they did not come from a void.

Hahn’s photographic process reinforces the sense of life within the images, while also emphasizing that the spaces are relics of the recent past frozen in time. He photographed all the spaces from outside. The doors to the buildings were locked, and the interiors were like sealed tombs caught in the moment right after the economic fall. Hahn shot all the photos through windows using a hand-held camera. He shot them without a tripod, and he captured them on the fly, knowing that the light he relied on to illuminate these interior spaces was as transient as the economic landscape itself.

Hahn was not just a spectator but a participant in the environments as he used his body to control the effects of light and shadow to activate the spaces and achieve maximum effect of interplay between light and form. At times, he adjusted the angle of his stance, held up a hand to block light and filter what light he allowed into the frame, and pressed himself literally onto the surface of the building to reduce reflections and eliminate shadows. The physicality of his presence is literally expressed by its absence, in the traces of light that streamed through the space between his fingers. However, though he manipulated his own body as part of the photographic process, his presence never intrudes on the space. In fact, Hahn consciously removes any trace of himself from the photographs. There is no evidence of his shadow or his reflection. Still, the physicality of the process informs the photos with his absent presence, making the photos a reflection of him even if his own reflection is not present.

Though the rooms and offices in Empty Spaces seem fixed in time and place, their fluctuating sense of scale adds another dimension of life to the images.  Nature photographs of giant redwood trees or huge waterfalls often require the inclusion of human subjects in order to impress us with their size. But Hahn’s photographs impress us because their sense of scale is in flux. There is no point of reference other than the generic functionality of the space. They are simultaneously contained yet expansively wide open. These spaces could be huge or tiny. They are capable of communicating a sublime monumentality or the uncanny quality of the miniature. For all the uncertainty they stir up, however, the spaces present more like models of what life could have been rather than ruins of what life actually was.

Hahn’s manipulation of perspective and depth of field consciously accentuates this quality.  Some shots are massive, showing the expansive void left behind by the economic collapse. The spaces open in their vast chambers like cathedrals, inviting the eye to roam through them. Light streaming in from outside reflects off windows, off floors, and off interior surfaces, and it fills the spaces with a transcendental glow. Instead of vaulted ceilings, we find dead sprinklers, drop ceiling panels, and fluorescent light tubes. Instead of stained glass windows, white light streams through unadorned aluminum framing.  In these wide scale shots, we feel both the vacuum of the empty spaces but also a residue of spirit that transforms them into something beautiful and ethereal.

Others shots zoom in and bring the interior details to the foreground. The emptiness of structural components carries the heavy weight of absence, their sense of purpose and utility lingering in their empty form. The cubicles where people sat and the counters where they leaned remind us of the workers who are no longer in the picture, the people who lost their jobs, who disappeared through the various doorways and dark corridors that lead our eyes out of the frame. Like the wide-scale shots, these close-focus shots are not static. The way space dissolves into shadow, doors lead to nothingness outside of the frame, and windows and ceilings open up to other worlds create interplay between foreground and the hidden recesses of space in the background and margins of the frame, the possibilities for exit or the dead end of dissolution.

While the environments in these photos are sealed and finite and their final destination (closure and evacuation) has been determined, Hahn’s manipulation of shadow, light, doorways, and other structural elements within the photos instills the spaces with agitated uncertainty. Many of the photos dissolve in the background and at the edges. They disappear into shadow and a place of the unknown. Doors open into dark spaces that could either be a way out or could be a dead end. Exit signs lead to dark doorways, either beckoning us to step through into a new place of opportunity, or simply leading us into the dark abyss of recession. While objects and structures are brought into the light in the foreground, the background and edges of the photos disappear into shadow, as if the darkness is going to swallow them. Shadow itself is a living presence within the dead space. The dissipating shadows in some of the photos maintain some light and life, leading us off the edges into the unknown and giving a sense that that there is somewhere to go outside of these places of economic collapse. The shadows in other photos recede into a claustrophobic finality with a lone chair in a dark room swallowed in shadow, windows reflecting nothing but the opaque black of the dead space beyond, or corridors ending in the finality of a dark wall.

But even the sense of termination in these photos – the way they dissolve into black recesses –infuses them with a sense of reverberating life. The many doors that open throughout the series – doors opening upon doors which lead into darkness; doors opening from the sides of the frame or opening in the back of walls; doors leading to empty rooms – all remind us of the people who have left through them. The open doors remain active and agitated with the traces of the people who left in such a fleeting moment. We can see and feel the traces of the bodies that passed through them hesitating within the emptiness of the open door frames. The open doors also beckon to us to step through to the other side. They are portals that contain a history of memory.

The closed doors, on the other hand, linger with a sense of finality, while also beckoning to what possibly lies on the other side. In some shots, light seeps through cracks or we get a glance through a window of a brighter world that opens up beyond the door. In others, the doors are closed so firmly they become part of the fixed structure of the wall. They’re like doors that seal the tomb of this space that is caught in time, a place where history is contained in a vacuum. Exit signs hang above doors like evidence pointing to the great evacuation: this is where the people went. Or they are like opportunities for escape: exit here for a new world or at least to find your way to the parking lot. Or they simply provide a record, a marker of the exit of dreams and the people who believed in them.

Even though we sense the existence of the outside world as light streams through windows or cracks of doors, it remains firmly situated beyond these closed spaces. The outside world comes to us filtered through a twice-removed process as trees, streetlamps, and clouds reflect off interior surfaces. These images hover within the interiors like projections from a world left behind, or they actually merge with the interior as if the exterior world has been superimposed on these spaces as a reflection mural. Yet they are glimpses into something beautiful, hope caught in the corner of the frame in the image of a lone street lamp or a billowing cloud. A red fire escape pull is fixed to the wall right next to an abstracted reflection of the outside world. The image is so beautiful, offering an escape from the rigid geometry of the sealed interior by leading us into the abstracted beauty of a myriad of reflections blending into color and light.

Life is found in other places in these photos as well if you look close enough. It’s almost like tracing the evidence and ephemera of the people who occupied the spaces and the transactions they conducted. Dead phone cords dangle like severed arteries from walls; the memory of human voices echoes in the disconnected lines. A bag of rubber bands sits on a desk waiting for someone to put it to use. The corner of an empty white board peeks from the side of one frame, as if it is waiting for a hand to lift a dry erase marker and write something on its blank surface. The empty board itself echoes with its own message saying, “People were here. Now they are gone. I am the keeper of memory.”

Chairs sit akimbo or are arranged from the last day at work, the last meeting, the last phone call. Their bodies are completely frozen in time as if they are waiting for the return of something that will never come.  The people who once sat on them linger on the seats and the arm rests. Styrofoam cups, a desk lamp, a cardboard sketch tube, a file rack – all these objects are trace evidence, the material ectoplasm of the people who occupied the space, each piece stamping the places with a human presence that has been wiped clean from the scene and reduced to a a trail of random objects left behind.

There may be no human bodies in these photos, but the spaces themselves represent a kind of failed body. In some shots, the infrastructure is exposed and collapsing. Ventilation systems are suspended from ceilings like dead pulmonary systems frozen in time. Electric tubing hangs from walls, severed, its life cut off at the source. Piles of insulation have tumbled from ceilings like the remnants of a messy autopsy or lie in tubes on the floor like piles of lifeless limbs. Panels hang loose, broken and askew from ceilings, exposing wiring or dropping more piles of insulation to the floor. Electric sockets are lifeless, the power source long cut off.  Florescent lights are dull tubes encased in plastic coffins and mounted to ceilings. The failure of the infrastructure of these spaces becomes a symbol of the failure of the economic system itself.

Even though the spaces may represent a failed body, life continues to pulse in the beautiful traces of light that illuminate each and every photograph. They make the photos transcend mere geometry and take us to a place that exists beyond calculations, economics, statistics, and history. These traces seep through the void left in the wake of economic collapse, providing moments of beauty and hope even in this seemingly empty environment. Hahn has captured a new American terrain where fallen dreams reflect off floors, windows, walls, ceiling panels, or piles of insulation tubing. Light filters through these spaces and illuminates an infinitude of tiny details and subtle variations in form and color. These fleeting moments of illumination allow the images to transcend the claustrophobic confines of their sealed environment and move beyond the system that closed the door on them. They show us that even in this empty landscape, we can find beauty in the most unexpected places if we just open our eyes and look.

In a way, Empty Spaces is a contemporary ghost story told in beautiful images. These stunning photographs capture the specters of the 21st century economy. At first glance they may seem so devoid of life, so similar, and so empty, but the photos are actually like individual dreamscapes that transform the obsolete purposes of these functional spaces into haunted incidents of failed dreams and lives lived. Look close and study the nuances of color and shape, discover the traces of evidence left behind, and you will see that each space is telling us its own unique and individual story. Hahn’s photos aren’t just documenting the failure of the new economy and the transformed American landscape that it left in its path of destruction. These photos are paying homage to the people and the dreams that were left behind when the system failed. Hahn’s “empty” spaces aren’t empty at all.

The photographs in Empty Spaces are truly monuments of our time. By maintaining an austere minimalism and resisting the traditional approach to romanticizing ruins, Hahn communicates a beautiful and tender human presence through negative space, and he documents the ghostly absence that the new economy has left in its wake. This collection of photographs is not a romantic view of ruins, but a recognition that it is time to look at things differently, to take better note of the world we live in now and the people and dreams who occupy it. These photos open up a new realm of possibility in an era of economic collapse; they offer a way of seeing that allows us to find traces of beauty and humanity even when we find ourselves in a landscape of empty spaces.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Counterpunch, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

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All images and content copyrighted 2012 by Mark Hahn, all rights reserved.