A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from an old schoolmate from my days studying at the Missouri School of Journalism. It was a reminder of how long ago I was in school and a little bit of a trip down memory lane, remembering all of the people I met while in school there. It’s hard for me to believe, but it has been some two decades since those days hunkered down in Columbia, Mo., studying away for what would eventually lead me here. The people I went to school with, along with those who taught, were all pretty remarkable. We’ve all gone our separate ways, following different paths, but some of us are still guided by the passion that brought us all together.
Anyway, back to that email. It was from photographer Travis Fox, who was a little bit ahead of me at Mizzou. I think we may have even lived in the same apartment building across the street from Harpo’s, a college bar that I remember being in when the university’s marching band played a raucous set before we played football against our archrival Kansas. I definitely remember Fox being intensely focused and incredibly hard-working and talented.
In the intervening years before I wound up here at The Washington Post, Fox and I went our separate ways, but I remember following his work. In an ironic twist, he actually landed at The Post many years before I did. During that time, I remember sitting at my computer watching Fox’s long-form video work from places such as Afghanistan and Iraq. I was often struck by the poetic quality of his work that was combined with a very strong emotional undercurrent.
Fast forward back to that email I got from Fox. He was writing to let me know of the publication of his first book, “Remains to be Seen” (Daylight, 2020). It is a book of aerial photographs, made using a drone, of landscapes across the United States. That same poetic and emotional quality I remember from his video work is present in these photographs and in this project.
The first thing that strikes you while looking at the book is the beauty of the photographs. But as you drill down into them, you start to see that they are also documents of loss — from abandoned industrial and amusement parks to the remnants of once-flourishing places like the mostly defunct summer resort area of the Catskills’ “Borscht Belt.” Along with that loss, Fox’s photos also show us how new realities are popping up and encroaching on what was once there.
“Remains to be Seen” is accompanied by an introductory essay by The Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning art and architecture critic, Philip Kennicott. Kennicott writes far more eloquently about Fox’s book than I am capable of. He sums up what Fox’s work is about in the words below:
“These images by Travis Fox, taken with a camera mounted on an aerial drone, reveal the archaeological remains of forces that shaped American life during the last century: The flourishing and fall of the industrial economy, the growth of the suburbs, the post-war population boom and leisure economy, and the creation of ambitious yet disposable infrastructure, all fueled by a broad prosperity that was coexistent with poverty and racism. You see the margins and fault lines of that society, the sharp and widening gap between rich and poor, the environmental neglect and disdain, the detritus of wildfire capitalism that built, but rarely conserved.
“Fox’s intuition, borne out in these images, is that to understand a society, you must look to its interstitial spaces — the shards of parking lots, strips of grass, empty concrete slabs, and patches of shoreline that no longer front bodies of water. ‘Remains to be Seen’ offers a taxonomy of these in-between places, the interface between the natural and the man-made world, the porous divide between the haves and the have-nots that cut through urban neighborhoods, and the temporal thresholds between various stages of wrack and ruin, from neglect to decay to collapse and finally, the last faint traces on the landscape, waiting for the archaeologist to rediscover them. Or for the drone, which finds things we cannot see.”
Intentionally or not, “Remains to be Seen” comes at a time of tremendous upheaval in the United States. Everything has become so politicized and contentious. Instead of being united, we are polarized. There have always been problems we have dealt with as a society. But it seems as though now, the civility and compromise we used to have, even if only performatively, has faded — not unlike the places and things Fox’s drone images show disappearing, disused and cast aside.
Fox is director of visual journalism at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, nestled not too far from the flashing lights of New York’s Times Square and just around the corner from the New York Times. You can find out more about “Remains to be Seen” on his website, here.
In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff members and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.
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