Coffee table books are usually light-hearted, fun reads that you can quite happily flick through on a Sunday morning, papers and supplements sprawled around you and a hot coffee to hand. At least, that’s my ideal weekend. Coffee table books aren’t meant to make you think, and they certainly aren’t meant to make you question what you know. Photographer Phil Bergerson evidently read the rulebook, and chose to ignore every word.
American Artifacts is a series of images taken in the United States in the first decade of the twenty-first century, from Oregon to California, New York to Texas. Bergerson sought to display the ruins of a country ravaged by constant movement – America is a country of immigrants, after all – and the unseen landscapes of this vast country. There’s no Empire State Building here, no Hollywood sign, it’s a look at what us tourists don’t get to see: the ‘real’ America.
Although the majority of the 123 photographs were taken before the 2008 recession, the feeling of desertion and money troubles shines a harsher light on a country so often bathed in glamour and self-adoration. Such images could only have been taken by a foreigner – Bergerson is Canadian – with a wry realism that reminds us of the tumultuous nature of American movement and history.
…one page-turn takes us from abandoned sculptures in Seattle to a classroom in Le Mars…
The range of images is fantastic and jarring: one page-turn takes us from abandoned sculptures in Seattle to a classroom in Le Mars, the Stars and Stripes handing forlornly in the corner. Other images, such as the tattoo shop settling a dispute with its rival across the street in Auburn, endear the viewer to the simplicity and welcome mundanity of daily life in America’s forgotten towns.
The most notable absence from the series is life: whilst there is evidence of recent human activity (a hand-written note, graffiti with running paint), there are no people, nor any animals, in the book. This simply adds to the argument that these places have been left abandoned, as the swarm of people have moved on to wherever life has taken them, abandoning the land and lives they had cultivated there. This shocks into sharp relief the irony that America’s largest cities are overcrowded whilst the country is empty but not soulless.
…an alternative view of a country that is more normal than we…
Bergerson’s images are thoughtful and perspective, handling with care a new chapter in America’s history. They are reminiscent of Dorothea Lange’s striking images of Dust Bowl America in the wake of the Great Depression, putting forward an alternative view of a country that is more normal than we, or the US itself, gives it credit for. Sure coffee table books aren’t always meant to make you think, but pick up this one and you won’t be able to help it.