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Sunday, March 23, 2008

BOOK: "American Ruins," by Arthur Drooker (Merrell, $45)

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TARGET AUDIENCE: People who go places to see where we've been.

Much like discovering one's first gray hair, the initial reaction to this picture book is puzzlement and mild outrage: How can a nation so young have "ruins"? But ruins speak of loss and transition, and the United States certainly has experienced both. Consider the Bethlehem Steel mill, abandoned in 1995 as steelmaking went overseas, or the Renwick on New York's Roosevelt Island, built as a smallpox hospital.

Using digital infrared techniques that evoke memories of frosty backyard mornings, and printing his 100-plus photos in sepia, Drooker finds visual poetry in abandonment. Some of his 25 locations are close by: Harpers Ferry, W.Va. (those sentinel bridge piers) and a former governor's mansion in Barboursville, Va. (a Thomas Jefferson design with an octagonal drawing room). The Southwest's remnants of ancient Native American cultures get their due, as do the ruins of King Kamehameha's summer estate near Honolulu, and what's left of Rhyolite, a Nevada mining town. Don't think of it as aging; it's "maturing."

--Jerry V. Haines


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