Tong Lam and the Use of Essays and Appropriations in Abandoned Futures

Ruined Mansion at Emerald Point Turks and Caicos 2013 - 1/250 at f/8, -1/3 stop, ISO 100

Ruined Mansion at Emerald Point Turks and Caicos 2013 – 1/250 at f/8, -1/3 stop, ISO 100

A Short Review of Abandoned Futures

Tong Lam *(1) is interested in using photography to examine industrial and post industrial ruins around the world. This is reflected in his published work which includes Abandoned Futures which looks at the abandoned places of current civilisations and asks whether, in time, these will outnumber functioning places and offers a vision of what he calls the post human world. It appears self apparent that governments and developers prefer to build on green rather than brown field sites so across the world we can see post industrial wastelands being created and abandoned whilst we build on prime agricultural land, clear virgin forest and put increasing pressure on the remaining areas of wilderness.

Abandoned Futures *(2) follows the traditions of social documentary photography by focussing attention on environmental and social issues that should concern us, at one level we have mountains of waste, cars and planes dumped on virgin landscapes to decay slowly as new rubbish is rapidly added to the pile, and at another level more monumental forms of waste in the shape of abandoned buildings, industrial complexes and housing. The photographs of these buildings are archeological in nature, recording such a recent past that, at first glance, deserted amusement parks look closed for the night and books line dusty shelves in abandoned offices. Many individual photographs are complete narratives where the audience can easily add the past and the future to the image imagining the inhabited space and its eventual collapse into a cloud of concrete dust.

Overall the book is a single narrative, a story of unrealised dreams, failed projects, bad ideas and the degenerative processes of climate and nature but it is structured into chapters that investigate specific places or types of decay and each of these can be seen as an independent narrative.

The subject matter holds great interest for me as, over many years, I have collected my own library of photographs of abandoned buildings and decaying man-made environments partly because they often offer graphic and abstract subjects and partly because I am intrigued by the ability of nature to take control of the most resilient of man-made or shaped materials and slowly transform them into something organic, returning cement to rock dust, brick to clay, wood to rot and iron to rust. Trees and walls become a single organism as roots weave their way through lime based cement or twist around rock to find moisture and even though we can only see a fraction of the lifecycle we know the beginning and the end.

This meant that I would inevitably enjoy Lam’s work and I was taken with his simple compositions and unpretentious approach that often elevates the subject over the photograph. When looking at concerned photographers such as Koudelka and Jones Griffiths there is an sense of artistry and consistency of style to their photographs that is perhaps less obvious here. Lam’s style moves from plain landscapes that only make sense within the contact of the overall set to bright dessert scenes that are reminiscent of Stephen Shore in both composition and colouring through to deeply saturated daylight colours and soft long exposures. The book also falls down in the sequencing of the images so that we are often presented pictures on facing pages that have no obvious relationship – an abandoned car in the snow and an empty swimming pool in bright winter sunlight. However, overall I found the photographs engaging and full of intriguing detail.

Ruined Mansion at Emerald Point Turks and Caicos 2013 - 1/125 at f/8, -1/3 stop, ISO 100

Ruined Mansion at Emerald Point Turks and Caicos 2013 – 1/125 at f/8, -1/3 stop, ISO 100

The Use of Text in Abandoned Futures

Essays

There are 11 very readable essays included within Abandoned Futures. Lam uses these essays to discuss a range of related subjects from why people paint or photograph ruins right through to contextualising sets of photographs in the same way that Jones Griffiths approached Vietnam Inc. The overall context of this book is quite different than Vietnam Inc. or Wall where there is a sense of the photographer feeling that they need to educate the audience to understand the photographs. Jones Griffiths, probably quite rightly, believes that we will miss the point of his photographs of Vietnamese villagers if we don’t understand the inhabitants’ underlying culture and beliefs. In Abandoned Futures there is a different feel to the text, the photographs of thousands of dumped cars in the Mojave Desert do not call for education, most of the audience will understand the subject, the issue and the problem without further education so the text has to play a different role. His writing is not journalistic, is not laden with facts, is not even evangelical in style, it is elegantly written prose with an artistic rhythm that describes the car culture of the USA and acts as a background, another perspective on the scene we see in the pictures. It would be fair to say that it addresses the “why?” that Jones Griffiths states is so important but it is a broad brush explanation rather than an analytic discourse.

Appropriation

There are also a few examples of appropriation. Unlike Fox and Burgin (see Victor Burgin and Appropriations) his use of quotes is not ironic, he uses them to illuminate his own message so a quote from Victor Hugo “For, to make desserts, God, who rules mankind, begins with Kings, and ends with the work of the wind.” with a photograph of a ruined castle.

Old House Grand Turk 2013 -  1/125 at f/8, -2/3 stops, ISO100

Old House Grand Turk 2013 – 1/125 at f/8, -2/3 stops, ISO100

Conclusion

Lam’s text is integral to this book, he wants to tell the audience as much as he can in the constraints of the book and the photos and the words, whilst complimentary, often provide different information so as well as contextualising the images he is adding to them with his essays.

Sources

Books

(2) Lam, Tong (2013) Abandoned Futures: A Journey to the Posthuman World. Great Britain: Carpet Bombing Culture.

Internet

(1) Lam, Tong – Official Website – http://photography.tonglam.com/#/about/description

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