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American Ruins

Photographer Arthur Drooker's haunting infrared images of the bygone U.S.

by Evan Orensten
on 31 August 2010

While photographer Arthur Drooker's ruins aren't the castles and shrines that usually come to mind, his infrared images of prisons, mansions and other sites of U.S. decay evoke all the moody history and past lives of their tourist site counterparts. The Mill Valley, CA-based artist's "American Ruins" exhibit (opening at the Virgina Center for Architecture on 9 September 2010) culls these haunting photos from from his award-winning 2007 book of the same name, featuring luminescent images that with each crack and chip reveal just a bit of the America's former splendor. To learn more—including how Drooker achieves his otherworldly effects, what to expect from the show and what's next—read on for the interview, and see more images in the gallery below.


If you're in Richmond, be sure to check out the opening of American Ruins at the Virgina Center for Architecture on 9 September 2010 from 5:30-7:30pm, or visit before it closes 28 November 2010. You can also get a glimpse of the work in his current show at Santa Fe's William Siegal Gallery (through 3 September 2010), and look out for Lost Worlds, his large-format book collecting images from 33 sites in 15 countries that's due out Fall 2011.

What was the selection process in choosing photos for the exhibit? Are all of the images from the book?

All the images are from the book. There are 50 prints, representing each of the 22 sites I photographed for the project. The exhibition is organized geographically, the same as the book—the geographic regions are the South, the Southwest, the East, California and Hawaii.

what is it about ruins that inspires you and has kept you photographing them for years?

Photographing ruins merges my passions for history and photography. I'm drawn to these sites to make a spiritual connection with those who came before us, preserve the visual poetry of what they left behind, and restore what they've built to our collective memory. In making these images, I confront my own mortality and become most alive.

After the success of the American Ruins book, what led you to work on Lost Worlds?

I wanted to continue photographing ruins. Going beyond the U.S. borders seemed to make the most sense, but not so far away that it would take too a long time to complete the project. Hence, Lost Worlds: Ruins of the Americas. In every way it is a more ambitious project: The research, trip planning, and the photography. By the time I complete Lost Worlds at the end of this year, I will have been to about 30 sites in 15 countries. That's a lot of miles in a little over two years.

How does your subject matter influence your technique or vice-versa?

I photograph ruins in infrared. Infrared light is invisible to the human eye, but I use a specially adapted 35mm digital camera to record it. The ethereal effect illuminates the otherworldly atmosphere that haunts ruins, allowing a photographer to transcend mere documentation and capture the mystery and elegiac beauty of crumbling walls, weathered facades and broken arches as no other format can.

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