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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.

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.

Dorn writes:

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




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