American Ruins
Maxwell MacKenzie
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Buy *American Ruins: Ghosts on the Landscape
* online American Ruins:
Ghosts on the Landscape

Maxwell MacKenzie
foreword by Henry Allen
Afton Historical Society Press
79 pages
May 2001
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

It’s hard to write a review of a book like this. It’s like trying to explain to your children why you love them.

For like a child in its parents’ eyes, American Ruins is far more than it appears. On the surface, it is a very well designed and exquisitely photographed essay on the vanishing farmsteads of the northern plains states in the USA. That’s like saying the Mona Lisa is a woman.

On the next plane, the photographs—panoramics mainly, in black-and-white on infrared film—are beyond photography. They are a spiritual experience on paper that comes as close to the experience of truth as can be done without becoming it yourself. They are haunting, wistful, emotional evocations of the pain of time and loss, the invisible presence of people in what the picture does not, cannot, show, in the way that only black-and-white can push you out of “that” into “thisness.” As the foreword puts it: “... as if the camera has recorded something going on inside your head and projected it onto a wall.” Small wonder many feel black-and-white is the most difficult image recorder to work with, and also to many the most sublime when done well.

And sublime Mr. MacKenzie is. This is one of the most remarkably photographed books to come off the presses in a long time. Not just well done, but literally beyond compare; the sole occupant of its category. The photographs are closer to poetry without a pen than to the interaction between film and lens. Songs without words in an A-4 landscape book. The only thing to match them is the writing excerpts that “captions” them. (The captions in the conventional sense are Notes at the end of the book.) Mr. MacKenzie chose the excerpts himself, and he certainly did his homework well. Wallace Stegner is here, Robert Frost, Willa Cather, Henry Miller, Frank Lloyd right, and two writers who would probably be surprised to find their sentences thrust alongside the eloquence of this book. But here they are, and no the less eloquent:

“When family love is displaced onto land, every change that happens there has meaning: the calibre of the light and the texture of the clouds in a day, the big changes of the seasons, most of all the slow transformation of the infrastructure of the place itself as the decades pass. When the deflection of love is also a deflection of pain, the gradual decomposition of such a place can be excruciating, a kind of lifelong torture, and yet, at the same time, a hypnotic, unfolding story. As the place declines, layers of meaning are revealed.”
      - Suzannah Lessard, “The Architect of Desire: Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White Family”
To which Annette Atkins adds, in “Harvest of Grief: Grasshopper Plagues and Public Assistance* in Minnesota, 1872–78”:
“Minnesota lost settlers during the dark days of the 1870s . . . but thousands remained. Some could afford to stay; some could not afford to leave. Debts held some. Others wanted to hold on to their investments of time and energy. Some held different attachments; as one man explained: ‘I have lost my all here, & somehow I believe that if I find it again, it will be in the immediate neighborhood where I lost it . . . I have a child buried on my claim & my ties are stronger & more binding on that account.’”
In the Notes at the end of the book (done so not to clutter the word-plus-image haiku of the page layout) we learn just how fussy the calculating technician Mr. MacKenzie can be. One sawmill required an exposure of thirty seconds for enough photons to wade through what appears to be thinly overcast skies plus polarizing and red filter. The effect is like trapezing on the bottom of a snowflake as it descends the skies and prepares to land. If grays can be thought of as pastels, all the eye’s pastels are in this picture. When spying another photo-op, he could see by the angle of light on a distant shed that it would be a race between himself and the sunset to lickety-split the half mile there in time to catch the perfect light (page 18).

Next level beyond, like the luminous flotilla of cumulus floating above the flat horizon, itself floating above the grassland and grove and far mountain and near hill, each its essence to land that nude is essence to woman and cry is to child, there is, unbroken except for a single structure in or near the center, the next plane in this book: the foreword by Pulitzer-winner Henry Allen. As literary imagery it is the same league as Mr. MacKenzie’s pictorial imagery: Image, but more. Mr. Allen conveys all the picture-frame fact that forewords should convey (Mr. MacKenzie’s bio data, the cameras he uses), and then hits us with the real stuff. The first line reads, “All photographs are abandonings” and two pages later the circle is completed with, “The abandonment itself is erased.” How like Ms. Lessard’s alembic of history, “As the place declines, layers of meaning are revealed.”

In between is writing that calls our attention to what the unrushed eye can see: “. . . leaning barns and windowless houses, jutting up like wreckage in oceans of furrowed wheat and sorghum, architecture that looks more like a visible absence of something, like a missing tooth, than it looks like a presence of sun-curled clapboard and tatters of tar paper. It looks like ruins . . . of dreams that didn’t work out.”

Then he goes beyond all that, to the lives unseen in these pictures, flesh long gone but souls still there, a kind of spirit of determination to match this spirit of place: “. . . boredom, bad luck, debt, despair; about the blizzard that leaves you burning your inside walls to stay alive because if you go outside for firewood you’ll vanish; about a summer erupting with wheat until the grasshoppers darken the sky and eat everything—wheat, vegetable garden, even the leaves on the trees; about a husband who tells his wife he’ll be right back after he rides out to round up two cows—she watches him ride around the cows and keep going and he never comes back.”

Beauty of a special kind, these—of death, decay, the falling to ruin—but life of a kind all the more: eonic, seasonless as a century, brutal cold and brutal heat, wind vying only with grass for endlessness, and to the human who endures these and thus surpasses the self, transfiguration. Into this, the Great Plains, families came, filled with grit and ambition and not a few starry-eyed dreams. They are still here, here in these pictures. Look around the corners and there they are, in the boards of the barn they nailed, among the leaves in the trees they planted. With all that’s in this book, we can see what we never would have before, the eyes of dreams become the last remains of a rainbow.

And finally to the last plane of all: the publisher. The Afton Historical Society Press is Exhibit A why we need to keep alive American small publishers by buying their books and wagging our tongues about them. Photographers like Mr. MacKenzie may luck out and see their work accepted by one of the major houses. More than likely though, luck won’t fly their way so unerringly. And even when the so-called mid-list authors and photographers like him do manage to be picked up by the majors, would they get the lavish attention Mr. MacKenzie’s book received? Afton’s “product” is to the book what Pablo Casals was to the cello. It was printed semi-matte paper that won’t glare the eyes half to death, leaving them to see into rather than onto the pictures. The covers are a nice thick stock in the French binding style (a paperback with a flap that gives the effect of a hardcover’s jacket). There is a lovely balance of script and cursive fonts, and a wonderfully effective subtitle in smallcaps (the only place in the book where such are used). And—my heavens, haven’t seen one of these in awhile—a colophon on the last page specifying the fonts used. The ghost of Aldine has visited Minnesota.

Alas, the Picky-Picky Patrol has to beat its little drum and announce that the “Plates” announced in the notes at the back don’t correspond to any “Plates” in the book; next time use page numbers, folks. So endeth the Picky Patrol.

That said, this is what books used to be in the highest sense of the craft. And still are, if only we seek out and buy the work of presses like the Afton Historical Society.

And oh yes, order them at your local independent books store whenever you can. We need them, too.

© 2002 by Dana De Zoysa for Curled Up With a Good Book

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