BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Bob Garfield is away. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Of all the many moving parts of the ongoing great recession, the part that really chips away at our collective confidence is the one that puts people out on the street – literally. It’s the foreclosure crisis. And you could tell that story with statistics.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: More than 288,000 properties were lost to foreclosure in the July/September quarter. That’s up from nearly -
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: One in five homeowners now in some sort of trouble - one in five.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But now that crisis has deepened into a full-blown scandal.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Attorneys general from across the country expected to investigate allegations that some banks use fraudulent paperwork to kick struggling borrowers out of their home.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Your have banks sending people to change the locks on houses that aren't in foreclosure. You have all sort of craziness -
MALE CORRESPONDENT: JPMorgan Chase has now admitted they made a mistake.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: They're intoxicated with power, and it’s wild. It’s the Wild West.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It turns out that many big mortgage companies lack the proper paperwork to foreclose and may have done so in error. Advocacy groups and some Democrats have called for a national moratorium on foreclosures, but the top Dem in the White House opposes it. Should you blame the borrower or blame the lender-be? According to a recent Rasmussen poll, public opinion on everything from who to blame to how to proceed is mostly divided. What if the crisis were more thoroughly illustrated? In the mid-1930s, Franklin Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration, or FSA, hired a couple dozen photographers to help the public fathom the impact of the Great Depression. Among the now famous names doing that work were Walker Evans, Gordon Parks and Dorothea Lange. But has the economic crisis of our time, the housing crisis, yielded a similarly inspired photojournalism, a kind that transcends the politics and confronts us with the uncomfortable consequences? Paul Reyes, author of Exiles in Eden: Life Among the Ruins of Florida’s Great Recession, explored that question in a recent New York Times blog post in which he examined what’s been called “foreclosure photography.” He says that to understand the power of images to tell these stories, we need only look back to Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph called Migrant Mother.
PAUL REYES: That’s a classic picture where the migrant mother is looking off into the distance, hand on her face, and her children with their tousled hair are looking away.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There is some debate over how that picture came to look the way that it does.
PAUL REYES: Sure, and this speaks to the nature of photography in general. I mean, there are test rolls for Lange’s session with Miss Thompson – Florence Thompson is her name, the migrant mother. And there are dozens of shots, and she picked the shot that best articulated her message about the suffering caused by the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression and the economic conditions of the time. There are other shots where the kids are laughing, she’s smiling. And so whatever Lange had to do to create the shot, it was effective as far as its message is concerned.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So do you see some sort of analogy in today’s foreclosure photography? First of all, what is that?
PAUL REYES: Foreclosure photography?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
PAUL REYES: A photographer either documenting a family losing their home or entering a home and photographing that home. You know, when I had started my career as a writer in 1998, one of the jobs I had before was to work for my father, who cleaned out and repaired these houses. We call them “trash-outs.” And during that process, part of the job is to document the work ahead for the bank, what you’re going to do, how much it’s going to cost, and my father would go around snapping pictures with a little plastic disposable camera. And amid all this junk that was eventually going to be taken to the dump, you could piece a life together.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You describe in your Times post a number of photographers and their different approaches, or philosophies, for lack of a better word. It seems like perhaps your philosophy is closest to that of David H. Wells, who’s careful not to include people in his photographs.
PAUL REYES: Yeah, Wells, he’s adamant. In interviewing him he mentioned that if he includes human portraits, then it becomes too specific and not universal, and that by photographing the spaces there is a tendency for the viewer to place him or herself in that space and to empathize.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you deconstruct one of his photographs?
PAUL REYES: Well, my favorite – of course, all these photographs require or at least a good number of them require some kind of back story. And the back story behind this one, he entered a home that had been foreclosed upon. The owners weren't there, of course, but they'd left quite a bit of stuff. And one of the things that they left were hundreds of these karate trophies that apparently a son had won. And what was startling to him is that he realized they detached all of the nameplates that listed first place, second place, third place so that he had at least some token of his accomplishment. And that back story fleshes that photograph out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are there pictures that work without back stories?
PAUL REYES: I think for most of photography you have to bring something to it. You can appreciate the photograph aesthetically, but the context gives it its power. The photographers I mention in this piece, one is Todd Hido, and Todd’s photographs are from 1998, and they're all of empty rooms, almost completely empty – eerie pictures. And he got lucky every now and then and captured this beautiful light, which in the dankness he was able to juxtapose two qualities, this aesthetic beauty but also this loneliness. And in Hido’s photographs, all of the human presence remains in these gestures, whether it’s a half-closed door or whether it’s the impression of a bed. And when he was presenting these photographs in 1998, people didn't know what they were. They didn't know what a foreclosure was. And only now do people bring a level of empathy that wasn't there before, because it’s much closer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of the photographers that you discuss that takes a very different approach is Anthony Suau.
PAUL REYES: Suau has, I think, the most holistic approach to this crisis. He’s photographed Wall Street bankers, he’s photographed sheriff deputies entering a foreclosure, people getting evicted, that sort of thing. And they're densely populated, both with the houses of East Cleveland, which is his main turf, and with the individuals themselves. In fact, one of my favorite pictures by Suau is in this one neighborhood which has just been ravaged by foreclosures and abandonment. People have turned these foreclosures into works of art. They have painted over the plywood that covers the windows and the doors. They've painted scenes of a cat on a stoop or flowers on the windowsill, that sort of thing. And it’s those gestures that speak loudly to a human component.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mention photographers like John Francis Peters, who photographs the interiors of foreclosed homes and is very careful not to disturb surroundings. It’s important for him to capture the rooms exactly as he finds them. And then, as a counterpoint, there’s T.J. Proechel, who takes a very different approach.
PAUL REYES: Sometimes it’s extraordinary to find what you find in some of these houses. And there’s one photograph by Proechel that is part of his foreclosure series where he didn't touch a thing, and it’s like a David Lynch still. I mean, there’s a tanning bed and liquor bottles and a hatchet and a teddy bear. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A dwarf.
PAUL REYES: [LAUGHING] Yeah, exactly.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] But for most of his pictures, Proechel takes what’s in a room and arranges it so that it fits a frame. So, for instance, there’s one picture where he, you know, the rock on the floor, the shadow glass around it and the plywood that’s covering up the broken window. And, in fact, the other thing that’s in the frame, naturally next to the rock, is a pile of televisions for some reason. But what he brings into the frame is the chair and the cowboy hats and the portrait of a daughter. By doing that, he’s not only able to present this story but also give the house some kind of personality. John Francis Peters, on the other hand, doesn't touch a thing. He just walks in and tries to capture what he calls the energy of the space, and in doing so has these marvelous photographs that you need to sort of spend some time with, because aesthetically they're pleasing but there really isn't anything dramatic about them, whether it’s of a blue couch with a toy keyboard set neatly on one end of it or this Mylar balloon from a birthday party that has lost enough air to sort of float and skim the ground. Only by looking at it forensically is the story able to surface and the humanity of the picture and the humanity of the room is able to surface.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, these pictures remind me a little bit of the pictures that were taken after Katrina in the Ninth Ward, the fronts of houses sheared away.
PAUL REYES: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you saw a whole life, like a dollhouse with all the innards exposed.
PAUL REYES: Yeah, it’s interesting that you mention that because while I was an editor at The Oxford American Magazine, I remember seeing a number of these photography collections. And while it isn't quite fair to line up the circumstances, because they're not the same, aesthetically there became this sad trend in disaster photography, beginning with pictures of Ground Zero – Joel Meyerowitz’s operatic book Aftermath – and then you had Robert Polidori’s photographs of Katrina and you had Chris Jordan’s portraits of the houses of Katrina. And now you have Ed Burtynsky’s landscapes of the oil spill in the Gulf, which are beautiful, beautiful pictures, but haunting at the same time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, where does the foreclosure photography fit in?
PAUL REYES: Of all the recessions that have come and gone, there aren't that many that can be visually articulated. You have the Depression, you have the oil crisis of the 1970s, you have the ubiquitous image of the Wall Street broker looking at the ticker, which, from what I can tell, originates with Black Monday, 1987, and then you have this, the foreclosure crisis. And certainly this is more powerful than anything that has happened since the Depression. If there’s an iconic image among them that history will keep, it remains to be seen, I guess.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You have a candidate?
PAUL REYES: While it may not be fair to say that his is the best photography, Bruce Gilden’s work is very interesting. And what Gilden has done through Magnum in Motion is to put together these multimedia presentations. You could argue that it’s unfair to embellish the photograph with sound and music, that it just becomes a trailer for the crisis or some kind of music video, but I do think what he’s doing may be one of the most visceral experiences in looking at these photographs, because it includes this very unsettling music and not only the faces of people who are going through this, but the voices of people who are going through this.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] And they're very angry voices, and there’s violence in those voices.
WOMAN: It’s just another foreclosure and eviction situation. Foreclosure and eviction is spiritually wrong!
WOMAN: After they throw you out your lifetime home, your lifetime home, things are going to get worse.
PAUL REYES: It’s a disturbing thing to watch. And I think because of the combination of technologies and the combination of media that that might be pushing the envelope in a direction that I think will be fascinating to witness in the next few years, because obviously in many ways this is just beginning.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Paul, thank you so much.
PAUL REYES: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Paul Reyes is author of Exiles in Eden: Life Among the Ruins of Florida’s Great Recession.
[CLIP/MUSIC UP AND UNDER]:
WOMAN: What’s happening in America?
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