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Photo as Headstone

Michael Eastman has the un-Kodak moment with America.


The America depicted in Michael Eastman's American Photographs doesn't really exist in any vital sense. Eastman finds and records a country that was alive once but is quickly fading. His pictures serve as a eulogy to a bygone era.

"Shotgun House, New Orleans" looms over the entire show like a ghost. Before Hurricane Katrina hit, this was simply a beautiful, sumptuous shot, but because of the storm's near-total destruction, the photograph now seems symbolic. Technically, the picture is perfect — so clear and detailed that even the house numbers are visible on the porch columns. We can nearly feel the grain of the wood, smell a vanishing history in the decay-filled air. The sunrise (or is it the setting sun?) casts a warm light on the side of the house, and an immense sky swirls in the background — a harbinger of some disaster, perhaps? After Hurricane Katrina, it's impossible to see the photo any other way (and you wonder whether the house is still standing), though there's also a sense of tranquility in the sky's expanse.

Projecting an entirely different mood is "Sitting Room, Charleston." It's pure Southern gothic. The sitting room feels like a stately museum: Unlit candles rest in stands; a fantastic chandelier hangs from the ceiling; the room is drenched in vibrant gold, glowing orange and rich blue. The exquisitely framed shot says much more about the home's inhabitants than a traditional portrait might.

All of Eastman's work displayed here is huge and envelops the viewer, much like the setting of "Big Hole, Montana." A cabin that seems lost in the landscape evokes a past we never lived; looking at the photograph is inherently meditative. "We record history — we document the world around us and try to illuminate things that our audience usually does not see," Eastman has said of the photographer's purpose.

Eastman's subjects ultimately stand as American monuments, more humble and personal than those in Washington, D.C. They say as much about America as they do about the generations of Americans who built and inhabited these places, structures that are (or soon may be) victims of someone else's idea of progress.

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