Approaching Nowhere: Jeff Brouws

I’ve been thinking about Jeff Brouws’ recent book Approaching Nowhere quite a bit lately. Recently Jörg Colberg did an excellent interview with Brouws on his blog Conscientious that helped clarify a few issues.

There are some absolutely stunning night roadside images reminiscent of Brouws’ now out of print 1997 book Highway: America’s Endless Dream. If you haven’t seen Brouws’ work before, his 2001 book Inside the Live Reptile Tent: The Twilight World of Carnival Midway is on my essential night photography book list, and is quite reasonably priced when purchased used.

Approaching Nowhere is a very nicely printed hardback book that’s approximately 11×12 inches. The book is divided into three sections beginning with The Highway Landscape. As a night photographer with a love for the lonely roadside, these are my favorite images in the book. These 57 images form a strong and cohesive body of work that I’ve already revisited many times.

The section that follows the highway work is a different take on the roadside — The Franchised Landscape. It’s as if the whole first section of the book was a dream of last night, and the middle section is our new reality. A few images permutate the early work but replace the subject matter with McDonald’s. A photograph of a Wal-Mart in progress is followed by an abandoned Kmart. Big box store details, construction on former farmland, and two suburban images wind up 21 images in the middle section of the book.

The third section of the book is entitled The Discarded Landscape. Brouws has moved to the East Coast and started focusing on rust belt ruins. These strong images recall the spirit of Camilo Jose Vergara, but with their own distinct voice. While the highway images are primarily square, some of the discarded images are diptychs on facing pages, and the more panoramic aspect ratio suits the subject matter well. Like the first section, this body of work is cohesive and can stand on its own.

After sitting with the book for awhile, I realized the franchised section is being used as a bridge to connect the West Coast highway work and East Coast ruins. Conceptually this works really well, but the discourse about the franchised landscape on the book jacket and two included essays is overwhelming. The center section of the book inserts a short Michael Moore interlude into a Stephen Shore documentary. I prefer more subtlety and/or humor when talking about the evils of the modern fast food big box consumer age.

At a certain point I decided to stop churning over what the photographs mean, and just enjoy them. I’m not sure a close reading of the included essays will be useful at this point, but it may be something I’ll revisit later. In the mean time, I highly recommend the book Approaching Nowhere, and would love to hear what you think.