Aidan McGrath / Photography
Influenced by the works of painters such as Sean Scully, William Scott and Callum Innes, I take delight in photographing found pattern; in isolating elements of colour and texture with the objective of emphasising pattern. I hope that sometimes these images can rise above the merely graphic by the addition of the implication of the passage of time; the degradation implicit in flaking paintwork, for example, or the rusting of aged metal.
I seek out examples of the man-made which have succumbed to the forces of nature.
Thus, while making patterns, I am also seeking to illustrate the fragility of the ‘manufactured’, particularly ‘20th century manufactured things’, in the face of extreme nature.
The deserts of the south western United States of America and the cold wastes of Alaska are fertile grounds for this photography. Both regions add another recurring element to my photographs, isolation. These wild landscapes are never quite so empty as when they include a long abandoned sun bleached motel or an overgrown mine gantry.
I also enjoy photographing architecture and buildings closer to home, architecture which may be old but is far from derelict. I try sometimes to encapsulate the essence of a building by isolating a specific detail or quality. Also, again by isolating (sometimes tiny) elements of decoration illustrate to the viewer delightful aspects of the architecture which are easily overlooked.
Classical architecture, affords a different opportunity for pattern making, emphasising the repeated rhythm of a colonnade for example, reducing the recurring arches to a pattern of curving shadows, or a row of columns foreshortened into a pattern of parallel lines diminishing in intensity with distance.
Texas / Spring 2014 - Part 1
'Go on now and say goodbye to our town, to our town.
Can't you see the sun's settin' down on our town, on our town,
My image of small town America was gleaned (mostly) from the movies: from sources as varied as the Last Picture Show and from Blue Velvet but more than from any other film my idealised vision of this urban form derives from 'It's a Wonderful Life'. Frank Capra portrayed Bedford Falls as an idyllic community of high moral values and low slung buildings. In fairness, as a counterpoint, he also illustrated a distopian vision of Pottersville, that same town after the mean old banker has taken control.
This image was enough to bring Jimmy Stewart to his senses.
But it could have been much worse: the director could have flashed forward to the town after Potter's Bank has crashed, after the mine has closed and local agriculture has failed due to years of drought. If he had that image would have borne close resemblance to the decaying small towns of the Texas Panhandle. These places with dignified names like Clairemont or gutsy masculine names like Spur and Rotan are in decline and some already dead.They can be immensely sad places but equally, extremely photogenic. The combination of peeling paint, weeds, emptiness and bright sunlight is seductive to my heartless perception.
I offer no defence that in my images the degradation is sanitised by blue skies and by long shadows and by the bleaching effect of years under an unrelenting sun. Neither do I apologise for my photographic aesthetic which records the old buildings with an orthographic precision which tends to dehumanise. My objective is less to do with overt social documentary than it is simply to investigate, or maybe merely to illustrate the perverse beauty of the abandoned and the empty. However I trust that only those with a heart of stone would fail to recognise the social and personal loss implicit in some of these images; the futile optimism (or fatalism) which sees a freshly painted shopfront in an overwhelming empty main street.
The inordinately wide main street in these towns inevitably comprises low brick or timber storefronts, some collapsed or at least mortally decayed. They are generally single storey in height and flat roofed (or with that 'dummy pitched roof' so beloved of wild west towns). The pattern doesn't appear to have changed enormously since the days when cowboys tied up their horses to the hitching rail outside.
As an architectural counterpoint each one of the towns possesses one, at least, large (maybe three or four storey) stone or brick building on Main Street. These are most often an ex-bank, or a town hall now perhaps housing the local chapter of the Masonic Order or the Veterans Association.
These, few, masonry buildings exhibit huge dignity and contribute a gravitas to the town, but more particularly they indicate an historic wealth and success now only a memory.
Strangely there's very little vandalism evident, nor even graffiti and on the contrary considerable, but ultimately futile, effort is expended on keeping the frontages of empty shops animated. A strange phenomenon, worthy of a photographic study in its own right, is the random assortment of objects with which occupy the windows of otherwise defunct shops: some of them are very odd!
The retail buildings in town are plain, understated and largely undecorated although the same is often not true of the Gas Stations on the outskirts many of which are consciously 'stylish', and most frequently the style in question is a kind of an 'automobile Art Deco', now the sadder for its having once been 'slick'.
There are numerous exceptions to this urban demise: numerous small towns in Texas booming on the recent success of a nearby mine, for example, or an unusual density of those tiny oil rigs which are scattered all across the Panhandle. For now the success of these towns is marked by an architecture comprising largely aluminium cladding and felt roofs and plastic signage.
The small town of Marfa is altogether more interesting: its renaissance is not fuelled by mineral wealth but (weirdly) from its having become a place of pilgrimage for followers of minimalist art from all over the world. Since the opening of the Judd and Chinati foundations in the town a plethora of old and beautiful buildings has been restored and maintained affording a glimpse of how beautiful must have been all of these small Texan towns in their glory days.