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Architecture - Urban DesignPhotography

“Helter-Shelter,” An Exploration into the Organization of Temporary Communities. Photographs by Maxwell MacKenzie, AIA Headquarters Gallery

Maxwell Mackenzie, Burning Man from the Air
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Maxwell MacKenzie, Burning Man from the Air
Maxwell MacKenzie, Burning Man from the Air

Moving is part of our cultural heritage. We are restless; we are adventurous; we move to find better opportunities or just to explore. We have pushed the boundaries of this country west and north and south. We abandoned farms in droves and moved into urban areas at the same time exiting cities to build rings of suburbs. We have forsaken homes altogether to live on the open road, inventing recreational vehicles and trailer parks. Recently, thousands of Americans with bad mortgages have been forced to give up their homes, clinging to their RVs like life rafts in a storm. In good times and bad, it seems, we are on the move.

Rural America is full of these vestiges of our wanderings, past and present, which fascinate Washington, DC-based architectural photographer Maxwell MacKenzie. Abandoned barns and one-room schools in Minnesota, tobacco sheds in the South, deserted farmsteads, wheel ruts and other ghosts in the landscape of Wisconsin, Idaho, and the Dakotas have been the subjects of MacKenzie’s previous exhibitions and books—Abandonings (1995), American Ruins (2001), and Markings (2008). Recently, MacKenzie turned his attention to temporary communities, the clusters of make-shift homes that spring up unexpectedly wherever people decide they want to live, escaping the cold of winter in south Florida, creating art in the middle of a Nevada desert or racing dune bikes in a dry seabed in California. Dozens of photographs from this exploration, some over 25 feet long, have been assembled for an extraordinary exhibit, “Helter Shelter,” which opened earlier this month at The American Institute of Architects gallery in Washington, DC. It will run through January of 2013.


(Click to enlarge.)

To document last summer’s Burning Man Arts Festival, MacKenzie and his wife, artist Rebecca Cross, rented a RV in Minnesota (where they have a house) and drove several thousand miles to Black Rock Desert Nevada. There, over 55,000 people came together for seven days to create large scale art pieces and practice a kind of “radical self-reliance” for which the 30-year-old, counterculture event has become well known. All participants bring into the desert what they need; and every trace of the event and their presence is removed when they leave. MacKenzie photographed the semi-circular town of tents and RVs from the air in the ultra-light aircraft he had brought with him. He also photographed the makeshift dwellings at eye-level in a stunning series of 16 exposures put together by computer to create one large 180-degree panorama. The resulting print is 25 feet long and, MacKenzie believes, is the largest single photograph ever shown in Washington DC. The detail of this print is stunning. “It’s hyper-reality,” said MacKenzie. “The photograph is sharper than you can see with your eyes.”

And like the Burning Man Arts Festival itself, this extraordinary photograph, billboard size, has a limited lifetime.  It cannot be framed because there isn’t a single piece of Plexiglas big enough to cover it and, even if a big piece of Plexiglas could be found, as MacKenzie said, “What doorway would it fit through?”

“And, as people put their fingers on it and lean against it,” he continued, “it will slowly be destroyed.”

“Like an ice sculpture?”

“Yes.” There was no touch of sadness in his voice.

“Then why do it?” I asked him.

“I just wanted to see what the print looked like,” he said. “Who knows if I’ll ever print another one.”

MacKenzie is a successful architectural photographer in Washington, but this work he does, as he says, because “it feeds my soul…” and that passion is clearly present in all the photographs in the exhibit.


(Click to enlarge.)

In addition to the Burning Man pictures, MacKenzie documented the river community on Latsch Island in the Mississippi in the southeastern corner of Minnesota. Here, on public land, people who loved the beauty of the river came to roost on its banks. With hammer and nails, they built small boathouses, no two alike, and docks to secure the make-shift houses to the shore. They brought canoes; created small gardens. And now, through shear will of the squatters, they have obtained the right to be there. Again, in a series of composite images, MacKenzie creates a beautiful panorama of the river houses at dawn from a nearby bridge. I had a feeling that if Huck Finn existed, he lived here.

Visiting friends one Christmas in Borrego Springs, California, MacKenzie crossed the nearby Salton Sea, a former sea bed and one of the lowest, driest places in the country.


(Click to enlarge.)

He discovered a motor cross rally and thousands of RVs set up in a temporary encampment. On the spot (with the indulgence of his wife) he photographed the encampment in the haunted red desert environment with dune buggies racing around the hills and pinnacles. In a series of exposures to create a 180-degree panorama, the dune buggies change locations crisscrossing the landscape in front of the lens. MacKenzie admits to changing a few license plates on the motorcycles to disguise the fact that it is the same motorcycle in a different location in a different exposure. Artistic license, clearly. When I asked MacKenzie about this, he replied, “Was it Picasso who said that ‘Art is the lie that tells the truth.’” He was not concerned about this alteration of reality and, frankly, as a viewer, neither was I. It was not relevant to my experience of feeling that I was indeed standing on a hillside overlooking this incredible scene in a haunting desert landscape with a stunning clarity of detail.

Maxwell MacKenzie, Trailer Parks (Florida, 2011)
Maxwell MacKenzie, Trailer Parks (Florida, 2011)

For his exploration of trailer parks in southern Florida, MacKenzie traveled he said to a dozen or so parks and photographed RV with similar lens and distance to create a montage of individual photographs. All were clearly the same standard RV; and yet, all were remarkably different. With different color trim or landscaping or signs (“It’s always 5 pm somewhere”), owners make their temporary dwellings their own. For $15 a night, people from Canada and the northern states can stay in a Florida trailer park, a reasonable expense to escape the worst months of winter. Some people stay four to six months in these parks and then return home.

As word of this exhibition gets out, I’m hopeful that an opportunity will present itself to save these large prints in a photographic archive somewhere. Like 19th century painted panoramas, they are documents of our covered wagon culture, captured in stunning detail, at this particular restless moment in time.

Helter – Shelter
An Exploration into the Organization of Temporary Communities

Photographs by Maxwell MacKenzie

AIA Headquarters Gallery
1735 New York Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20006
Tel: (202) 626-7300
Mon-Fri, 9 am-5pm, through January 2013

Louise Levathes

About Louise Levathes

Louise Levathes is a senior editor at The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts and New York Arts and writes about art, theater, and public spaces. She lives in Washington, DC.

For a listing of her articles on New York Arts, click here.

2 comments
  1. Dhiru Thadani, AIA

    Documenting the ironic and perverse relationship that Americans have with the natural environment is artfully captured in Max Mackenzie’s beautiful panoramic photographs. He is no doubt one of the greatest photographers of our time.

Comments are closed.

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