Friday, March 03, 2006

Fifty Houses

Fifty Houses: Images from the American Road
by Sandy Sorlien

Fifty Houses, published in 2002, is not the newest photography book in your bookstore or library, just as the 50 houses that are pictured are not the newest on the block. That is perhaps fitting, because this book takes its time. For eight years, from 1988 to 1993, the author took two- and three-week road trips that carried her to each of the states. By the time the project was completed, she had traveled 90,000 miles of American road. Fifty Houses is not the America of the four-lane interstate highway but rather the America of secondary and back roads. She avoided the areas of urban sprawl where, as she puts it, driving along an access road outside of Anchorage, Alaska, looks exactly like Oklahoma City or Tucson or Jacksonville. Instead, Ms. Sorlien took the two-lane roads to the smaller towns. She would look around from inside her car or park in the town centers and walk along their streets. "All the while I looked for houses, my head turning left, right, left, right, like a spectator at a tennis match."

She found 50 houses, glorious in their uniqueness, and scores of anecdotes. Most of the houses she sought out were older examples of architectural styles now past. Often the residents invited her inside for tea and talk. "Many of the people I met were retired and, often, alone. I did all my shooting in the daytime, and they were the ones who were home." Yet the book is a tribute, not an elegy. The houses are steeped in history but they are also bubbling with life. In Mobile, Alabama, she met a woman who, while getting into her car, spotted Ms. Sorlien across the street reloading her camera. "I have to go out now," said the woman, "but the door's unlocked, so if you want to go in and get something from the fridge, please help yourself." With that she drove away.

The photo for each house was made using black and white infrared film, and the characteristic glow inherent in that process suits the subject matter perfectly, much like certain tunes just seem right because the music and the words blend together so well. Each house was photographed from an angle that captured the spirit of the place, isolating it from the distractions of adjacent properties, the outside world that always threatens to encroach. Fifty Houses is about photography, architecture, history, people, and wanderlust. Unlike photo books filled with images that jump out at readers, almost inevitably prompting them to turn the pages faster and faster in a hurry to see the next eye-popping example, this book is one to savor. These photographs pull the readers inside them, often creating an atmosphere that one person might call daydreaming and another might call meditation.

Ultimately, probably, the book is about longing, the unexplained something that makes us yearn to be safe inside our own houses, but curious to know the multiple experiences of living other lives inside other houses. One of the photographer's friends noticed that other friends would look through the photos and without exception would comment on two or three that specifically moved them. "Here's the one for me!" they would say, or "This is a place I could wake up each morning."

Photographs and prose from Fifty Houses and other projects are at Sandy Sorlien's website.


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