robert harding pittman

WIRED interview

WIRED interview

Many thanks to Doug Bierend for interviewing me and for writing about my work for the WIRED Raw File blog. Published on May 13, 2014.

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Doug Bierend's full article:

"YOU MAY NEVER find a better example of the sprawling sameness of suburbia than Southern California. From San Diego to Santa Clarita and beyond, middle class hamlets of homogeny epitomize the master-planned neighborhoods that first sprang up in the 1950s.

These suburbs, like others across the globe, impose their will on the natural environments. Endless stretches of green lawns and golf courses defy the area’s arid climate, and perfectly uniform rows of houses transform any hillside or empty canyon into a ready-made community.

Living in LA during the housing boom of the late ’90s, photographer Robert Harding Pittman was troubled by the loss of nature to these environments. An expanding creep of paved valleys, leveled hillsides, and cloned homes with thirsty lawns were a cookie-cutter contagion. He decided to document its spread on a global scale.

“I was disturbed. I thought, this desert is so beautiful and it’s disappearing so quickly,” Pittman says. “These places are built usually without regard to the local culture, environment or climate, so it’s always the same kind of architecture you stamp on every location.”

The rise of the suburb began after World War II, largely driven by returning vets cashing in on the GI Bill to purchase a home without a down payment. As ‘burb populations grew and their footprints spread, they came to signify the American Dream on the one hand and economic and racial disparity on the other. The general lack of cultural history or mom-and-pop businesses, coupled with indistinguishable architecture and big box stores, have made suburbs one of the unique and unmistakeable landscapes of our time.

There’s also something about them that seems to utterly repel and fascinate artists. The postwar burb-boom of Burbank, California, for example, was Tim Burton’s inspiration for the rows and rows of identical homes inEdward Scissorhands, while the Smashing Pumpkins offered a much less gracious view in their video for “1979,” which depicted the destructive teen-age boredom they tend to instill.

“I think that the hardest part for me was that there’s no interaction with people on the street,” Pittman says. “You build this development with some huge number of houses; people move in, all within one or two years if the developer’s lucky; and then this is called a community, which at least to me doesn’t make sense. I’m sure it will turn into a community in maybe 10 or 20 years. And it will then maybe also not be as sterile, and not as homogeneous, but I think initially at least it’s kind of a misnomer.”

The book spans 11 years of shooting, beginning in 1998 with Los Angeles and then expanding to Las Vegas, Dubai, Spain, South Korea, Greece, and more. Pittman, who started out using a Thomas Guide to spot new developments, has developed a keen eye for them.

“You can sort of see the way the streets are designed if it’s a development. If you see the grids and cul de sacs, you know it’s probably a master planned community.”

Anonymization is broken into four sections. The first, “Sacred Ground,” looks at the strange preamble to suburban developments wherein hills are leveled, avenues carved, earth rendered and paved, trees uprooted and replaced with rows of saplings. In “Conversion,” the construction process plays out with cranes and bulldozers. “Prefabricated” examines the mesmerizing repetition of the finished developments, and “Aftermath” looks at the inevitable decay that follows disregard or foreclosure.

In L.A., housing tracts usually draw from a quasi-Mediterranean aesthetic, while in Spain homes often evoke California or Florida. An obvious difference is in South Korea, where limited space forces development upwards, but these developments too are built in a hurry and often without careful integration into the existing environment and local communities.

“I have to admit that on the one hand I’m criticizing these developments, but I think for photographs they’re very appealing,” says Pittman. “Because they are so much alike, you can really play with symmetry and geometry and patterns.”

The photos document a peculiar approach to urban growth, one that that dominates rather than accommodates nature. Pittman hopes his photos will contribute to a conversation about our other options as we develop further.

“There’s a negative and a positive message, being that I think we’re not living in harmony with our planet, and with each other, and that in the end we’re destroying ourselves,” he says. “But my message is also that I think we can live in harmony with the earth, and we can live in harmony with mother nature. We don’t just have to have this attitude of conquering, because in the end it hasn’t really worked out well so far. There are alternatives; I don’t want to just paint this picture of doom.”

Photos from Anonymization can be seen through August 1st , 2014 at the DOCfield>14 Festival in Barcelona, and at a solo show through June 1st at Galería La Fábrica in Madrid."