Steve Gottliebs Abandoned America
Visual Clues From On The Road

Steve Gottlieb's Abandoned America

Photos © 2002, Steve Gottlieb, All Rights Reserved

Steve Gottlieb's photographs are bits of life that have vanished from our world forever--structures emptied of any signs of human existence, fragmented testimonials of our past. Gottlieb and I are sitting in my Boston studio looking through his latest book, Abandoned America. We come upon the photograph of an empty room, its peeling paint and partially demolished ceiling presenting a strange mélange of colors. He wonders aloud. "What could have made someone clear out everything? There's not a bedspring or faded newspaper, a broken doll or a half-eaten jar of peanut butter. It's as though someone attempted to expunge evidence of a crime."

In another image taken in a remote and deserted reach of the Sierra Mountains in Bodie, California, an outhouse leans precariously in the snow. It is a visual poem of intense melancholy, the rich patina of the weathered wood contrasting with the pristine and desolate wilderness.

His subjects are often commonplace and there is a tribute to Walker Evans in the work, though most of Gottlieb's images are in color. "The likeness is in the pronounced feeling of Americans on the move, of lives hastily transported to another place," he says, "a profound emptiness. I admired Evans and if you asked me who wouldyou most want to sit down and share your work with, I would say Walker Evans. In terms of his capture of architecture, geometric shapes, and history, he stands in a class by himself."

The Impetus To Record
Gottlieb talked of his experiences, the places he chose to travel and the momentum that lay behind a photograph of a gingerbread house, its roof covered with moss, an old Packard automobile factory where the last car came off the line over 50 years ago, or a colorful, abandoned truck with a bullet hole in the window, partially hidden in an overgrowth of weeds the words "Not For Sale" scrawled on its door.

As Gottlieb explains in the forward of Abandoned America, the magic moment is "a combination of when the esthetics please me and when the subject seems to transport me to another place, a historical place. Even though there are no people there, like on the cover shot, I could sort of feel someone driving that truck.

"The ultimate pleasure is taking you on a trip. Like great movies or books, pictures take you to another place. I don't date them because I want them to be as timeless as possible. Though I was a history major in college, I don't want to live in a different time. I just want the power to visit: like H.G.Wells' Time Machine--one day I'm in the 1880s, then the Grapes of Wrath, then Arthur Rothstein's pictures, a shack with the father and son in the dust bowl, the WPA era, Adams country, the feeling of the Farm Security--it's my little universe."

The Evolution Of His Vision
Gottlieb, who has been photographing since he was 12 years old, also served as chief model to his father, a professional photographer. Though he was comfortable around cameras, he decided to find his own route in life. Upon graduating from Columbia College and Law School, he practiced law in Washington for 10 years. He remained, however, a photographer at heart and would wander the city and take photographs. After amassing a large collection of prints, the thought occurred that the collection might warrant a book. Fortunately he found a publisher and in 1984 Washington: Portrait of a City was in print, soon to be followed by the well-received American Icons. A new and revised printing on Washington is due out this year.

"Hey, Do A Book..."
Though many photographers find rusty trucks and old factories irresistible material, sales of such subjects, even in stock, were nil for Gottlieb though at the time he was selling huge amounts of stock. The tides turned when an Art Director was rummaging through Gottlieb's files eight years ago while the photographer was shooting in his studio. "Hey, these are cool," he said. "You ought to do a book on this abandoned stuff."

Gottlieb had previously sent his book American Icons to Kodak and they had liked it. When they saw Abandoned America they decided to put up a major collection of the images on the Kodak web site and invited the photographer to Rochester to talk to their employees about his career. "Loosely speaking," Gottlieb says, "I am now part of the Kodak team and my work is hanging in the office of the Chairman of the Board."

The subtle color in most of Gottlieb's photographs goes along with the feeling of things that are old. "There is a lot of color we don't see and we translate in our minds what we think we are seeing. We look at wood and see brown and don't see the bluish tint that is there. In one image of a coalmine shed it was the lush iridescent blue that attracted me and prompted me to photograph. Many people who look at my work think I am a master in Photoshop. Though I am not tied to the notion of capturing a scene just as it is, I am apt to workin Photoshop only to remove anything that is distracting or superfluous or to what I think destroys the essence of the picture."

Gear For The Road
For most of his work Gottlieb uses Nikon cameras and lenses ranging from 14-500mm along with three zoom lenses with focal lengths from 20-200mm. He also carries a Mamiya 645 medium format camera with lenses ranging from a 24mm fisheye to 300mm and a Widelux 35mm camera with a moving lens encompassing 140Þ. "Since I don't always have time to remain in a location for just the right timing many of my shots are taken with flash to accommodate the existing light. Kodak film has remained my choice over the years and I currently use Ektachrome 100VS that provides me with the rich and vibrant color while the Ektachrome 100SW offers me a lovely warm cast. Both have superfine grain structure that gives me very sharp enlargements." Gottlieb does his own 13x20 prints on an Epson printer.

Although there is enough fodder for another article I must mention that Gottlieb takes pride in the fact that he meticulously designs his own books. "To me the single most important decision the designer makes is the sequencing of the pictures. I see it as a piece of music. It is like the notes have to fall in place. I look to set up a rhythm--I have lived these pictures and I know the feeling I want to generate and have viewers feel that familiarity and embrace it and say, `Hey, that reminds me of the car we used to have when I was a kid!'"