As a busy, well-respected architectural photographer, Camden resident Brian Vanden Brink spends most of his professional time in and around some of the most beautiful homes and properties in Maine and beyond.
It’s during the drives he makes to and from these beautiful structures, however, that Vanden Brink finds the subjects that are most striking to him personally.
And some of those subjects are a stark turn from his professional work.
Vanden Brink’s collection of run-down buildings, amassed in 30 years of seeking out such images, have been published in “Ruin: Photographs of a Vanishing America.”
“I travel a lot and, interestingly and ironically, many of these images were done on the way to photograph some new home or piece of design,” said Vanden Brink, who arrived home last Wednesday from a five-week road trip during which he drove to California and back, shooting more images of abandoned structures along the way.
“It’s an interesting point-counterpoint,” he said. “I live in the design world, as a marketer for architects and a promoter of their work, but this is more of a personal statement. These things articulate more of what interests me on a personal level, not a professional level.”
The 50 color and 70 black-and-white images come from all over the country and many are from Maine, where Omaha, Neb., native Vanden Brink and his wife, Kathleen, moved in 1978. Some of the towns appearing in the book include East Machias, Thomaston, Topsham, North Jay, Rockland, Damariscotta, Deer Isle, Tenants Harbor, Waldoboro, Machiasport, Bangor and Stonington.
Shooting run-down buildings has been a passion of Vanden Brink’s since he learned photography. The first such image he made, which depicts an abandoned gas station located on 30th Street in Omaha more than 35 years ago, is included in “Ruin.”
Even though the buildings are dilapidated by modern standards, Vanden Brink seems to treat them with the same reverence as his more well-known architectural work. The photographs of abandoned businesses and homes are as striking as his images of a well-appointed beach house, as Vanden Brink highlights colors, patterns, shadows and light, as well as small details. There is beauty in the patterns of trusses under the old Penobscot River Bridge between Bangor and Brewer, which Vanden Brink shot in 1994, and wonder in a spiral staircase left standing in a demolished house in Rockland in a 1999 photograph.
Vanden Brink’s photographs also note the struggle of the man-made structures against the forces of nature. Grass, trees and flowers seem ready to overrun the buildings. In “Winterport, Maine, 1996” a cluster of lupines in the foreground leans toward a group of deteriorating buildings in the background, as if the lupine are marshaling to storm the structure. The wild flowers and grasses likely would take years to overtake the building, but their victory has the feeling of inevitability.
Unless man gets there first — Vanden Brink said the Winterport buildings were torn down several years ago and modular homes were built on the land.
In the run-down, decrepit nature of the buildings, Vanden Brink said, he sees a bit of his almost 58-year-old self.
“I’m getting old, kind of like some of the houses in this book,” he said. “We get old and we wear out. Maybe we’ll be taken care of and maybe we won’t, and maybe we see some of our own humanity and awareness and our dreams and hopes. We work so hard, we earn money, but we don’t take it with us. We leave our shells behind. It’s a reminder to work towards the important things in life, the things that last.”
Vanden Brink is busy doing publicity for “Ruin” and working on his architectural photography, but he is eager to sort through the images from his recent road trip. It was a working trip, but his kind of work.
“Basically, this book actually inspired me and reminded me how important my own personal shooting is, and I haven’t been able to do that in almost 30 years,” he said. “It was some incentive and stimulus to get me out there and go back and kind of cover some territory I did when I was first starting photography. I’m very eager to look at what I’ve got and see what can be used.”