Brain Pickings

The Burning House: What People Would Take if the House Was on Fire

by

A pictorial meditation on how we construct our identity through objects and material possessions.

If your house suddenly caught on fire, what would you grab as you fled out the door? That’s precisely the question Foster Huntington asked himself, so he gathered the belongings he himself would take and photographed them, then asked a few friends to do the same. Then, on May 10 of 2011, he launched The Burning House with 10 such photographs. Within a few hours, he got his first submission from a complete stranger. Within a few days, he was making headlines. But he soon realized the self-selection implicit to the project engendered a certain psychographic homogeneity in the responses he was receiving and, driven to make people of various walks of life feel included, he decided to seek out more diverse submissions himself.

So, for five months, he drove thousands of miles up and down the West Coast and around the Rockies, in search for people “other than typical blog readers,” in an effort to expand the project generationally, geographically, and socioeconomically. Using Richard Avedon’s In the American West as inspiration, he set out to find those rare specimens who “had never heard of Tumblr, had never seen an iPad” — in other words, the kinds of people with whom he would’ve never crossed paths had he stayed in Manhattan. The results — rich, surprising, refreshingly human, from people separated by 80 years and spanning six continents — are now gathered in The Burning House: What Would You Take? (public library), based on the Tumblr of the same name and a fine addition to this running list of blog-turned-book success stories.

Huntington writes in the introduction:

Today, developed countries are consuming more than ever before. This culture of consumption is often fueled by people’s desire to define themselves by the possessions they amass. The Burning House: What Would You Take? takes a different approach to personal definition. By removing easily replaceable objects and instead focusing on things unique to them, people are able to capture their personalities in a photograph.

What emerges is part Material World, part Things, part wholly singular lens on the human condition, bridging the practical and the sentimental in a way that bespeaks our constant see-saw between rationality and intuition.

Name: Miguel

Age: 36

Location: Porto

Occupation: Bike shop owner

List:

The picture you gave me and the leather box we found together.

Mom and dads old camera and mom and dads old leather bag.

The shoes I can’t live without.

Your smell #1 and your smell #2.

The notebook where I draw while you laugh.

My iPod to listen to beautiful tunes while thinking in our next home.

Name: Brody

Age: 6

Location: New Hampshire

Occupation: A kid

List:

Wedgehead

Garfeild cup

Lego helicopter

Bumblebee Transformer

Chip

yellow belt

piggybank

wallet

weaving

(not pictured) Lego Camera used to take photo

Name: Kate Molins

Age: 26

Location: London, UK

Occupation: Clapper / Loader

List:

Buster Kitten - 2 yr old cat

My mum’s ashes

Photo album / scrap book

iPhone

Grandmother’s watch

Dad’s watch

My watch - 16th birthday present from my mum

Macbook

Passport

8mm Camera - 24th birthday present from all my friends

Dad’s “I Love Tits” Mug - in small print, “from the British Ornithological Society”

Limited edition GONZO, Hunter S. Thompson photo book - 21st birthday present from my mum

Lemmy, Buster Kitten’s brother

My uncle’s old Leica CL

Diary & notebook of VALUABLE ideas & info from the past year

Portable hard drive with millions of photos and other important things

Name: Joshua Lee Bacon

Age: 20

Location: Boone, Iowa

Occupation: Student

List:

Favorite pants.

Favorite underwear.

iPhone.

Box full of all my prints and negatives.

Buffalo box full of treasures and special snapshots.

Passport.

Chinese cigars.

Some cash.

Photo of my grandparents.

Photo of a friend.

Field notes and pens.

Vivitar and telephoto lens.

I would want to take more records, but the first one I would grab would be this Envy Corps 7 inch.

Some old letters.

Wallet.

Name: Brenda Bell

Age: 60

Location: Pinetop, Arizona White Mountains (wild fire country May/June)

Occupation: Homemaker

List:

My dog, Baby Val and treats for him

My husband Larry and treats for him

Peanut butter and crackers, peanuts, candy and gum

Bumblebee Transformer

A spork (spoon/fork)

Hand warmers

Wool hat

Lots of money (small dimensions) and change

Emergency first aid kit and zip lock bags

Matches

Name: Kristi Dahlstrom

Age: 27

Location: Germany

Occupation: Literature Teacher

List:

Great Aunt’s Violin (& Bow)

US Passport

Photograph of Siblings

2 Letters

Journal

New American Standard Bible

Rilke’s Book of Hours

T.S. Elliot Collected Poems

MacBook Pro

Black Flipflops

Name: Luca

Age: 42

Location: Edinburgh, Scotland

Occupation: Pricing analyst

List:

My collected writings

My Field Notes still to be used

My current notebook

the Midori Travellers Notebook On Writing by Stephen King

From Hell by Alan Moore

Important photographs

The stove moka I had for the past 10 years (because nothing looks as bad after a proper coffee)

The belt my dad had when he was in the army

The beret I had when I was in the army

Fountain pen and pencil, with my favourite brown ink

My grandad’s petrol lighter

Opinel knife Bookbinding tools

Reading glasses and sunglasses

iPhone 4S (used to take the picture)

Name: Alejandro Sosa

Age: 36

Location: Venezuela

Occupation: Technology consultant

List:

Everything is recoverable, except my daughter

And in case you were wondering, here’s what I would take:

  1. Wallet (recycled newspaper and plastic bag, from HOLSTEE)
  2. 1935 edition of Ulysses with sketches by Henri Matisse and 22-karat gold accents (Sure, the hefty tome would weigh me down — but I decided against the replaceable iPad and pair of giant Canon cameras in its favor.)
  3. Glasses
  4. Passport
  5. MacBook Air
  6. Phrenology bike helmet hand-painted by artist Danielle Baskin
  7. Makerbot-printed space invader, a gift from a dear friend
  8. Two-finger yellow LEGO ring from C+
  9. iPhone
  10. 1993 edition of Gertrude Stein’s 1938 children’s book, The World Is Round
  11. Owl necklace from the 1950s, found in a middle-of-nowhere California vintage shop en route back from TED
  12. 1 TB external hard drive with all my personal data, 15 years of photos, 100GB of music, and just about every piece of digital content I’ve ever owned (Western Digital My Passport Essential SE 1 TB USB 3.0/2.0, for the record)
  13. Original drawing of Paula Scher, one of my big design heroes, by my friend and illustrator extraordinaire Wendy MacNaughton. It reads: “Impossible happens.”
  14. My Vibrams

You can submit your own on the project site.

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