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Photographs of Nothing

Morrow Jones | United States

An Automobile Dealership

These are photographs not of something but of nothing, of the empty spaces left behind when businesses are forced to close. Empty storefronts are the most visible local sign of recession; they are for the most part the only visible sign—and thus a daily reminder that the private nature of our economic distress may be the most insidious thing about it. When there should be ongoing public outrage, people accept in silence what they have to accept and do what they have to do. We blame ourselves for the consequences of banking practices and fiscal policies that were never within our comprehension or control. I'm a collector of vintage photographs as well as a photographer, and I've populated these storefronts with men, women, and children from earlier decades—in an effort to convey that in our failure to achieve economic justice we deserve the rebuke of both past and future generations.

In my small sphere, that of a teacher and photographer living in retirement in northwest Connecticut, empty offices and storefronts are almost the only outward sign of the global recession. As I've discovered, though, empty offices and storefronts are almost never completely empty, and I sift the wreckage as I study the pictures I take from the sidewalk or the parking lot. There are generally brooms and buckets and ladders around, but the cleaning up rarely seems to have been finished, probably because no one had the heart for it. Things get left behind: a musical instrument standing mute at the back of an empty pawn shop, a jacket hanging on an office partition, a pile of office telephones. I look at the table and the chairs in a small salesman's office at a bankrupt car dealership and think: Here salesmen and customers sat to discuss the purchase not of mere automobiles and trucks but of the American dream of mobility. There's a poignancy in the Halloween motifs painted by schoolchildren on plate glass windows through which no one will look. There are sports trophies high on the wall of a failed tavern that must have supported those teams in better days. We have failed to learn the lessons of the past; we are letting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for fiscal reform slip away; we swallow without question the nostrum that our economy will always have better days and worse. Speculative bubbles, we're given to understand, are natural phenomena, like tornadoes or hurricanes. They are, of course, the result of human action and inaction.

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