The Presence of Absence: Jane Dorn’s Haunting Photographs of Abandoned Buildings in the South
A poignant reminder of our impermanence and the beauty of accepting life’s cycles of growth and decay.
By Maria Popova
UPDATE: Dorn’s photos are now available on society6. Click each image below for the respective print.
“While a painting or a prose description can never be other than a narrowly selective interpretation,” Susan Sontag wrote in her timeless meditation on photography, “a photograph can be treated as a narrowly selective transparency.” Early photography advocate Frederick Douglas spoke of photography’s singular power to reveal the unseen as “aesthetic force,” and yet in today’s image-overloaded culture, how easily that aesthetic force can slip into what Sontag called “aesthetic consumerism” as we devour timeline visuals and telepresence stand-ins for our friends, our communities, and our own experiences of reality. The need for an antidote is precisely what makes the work of Greenville-based photographer Jane Dorn so compelling. Like a contemporary Eudora Welty of the camera, Dorn captures the mesmerizing intersection of place, presence, and absence in her project Empirical Evidence — a series of haunting photographs of abandoned houses, churches, schools, and other once-inhabited buildings across the American South.
Emanating from Dorn’s photographs is a disquieting sense of impermanence as one beholds these derelict structures once erected as assurances of permanence. And yet a quiet beauty slips in through the cracked back door, gently reminding us of the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi — the awareness that life’s beauty comes from accepting imperfection and welcoming the natural cycles of growth and decay.
Looking is benign. Seeing has teeth and comes with consequences. You see it, you own it. Sometimes it owns you.
I think of photographs as proof. Empirical evidence of both what is and what is not. Through the camera, I see not what is present, but what is missing. I see evidence of absence through the presence of what remains.
See more of Dorn’s work, which is so striking it belongs in a gorgeous photography book and it’s a miracle it isn’t yet in one, on her site and follow her on Tumblr, where she is a consistently stimulating presence.
Images © Jane Dorn courtesy of the artist
Published April 3, 2014