Capturing the 'forgotten' towns of America's Deep South

Updated 22nd September 2017
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Capturing the 'forgotten' towns of America's Deep South
Written by Oscar Holland, CNN
Contributors Judith Vonberg, CNN
A rich blue sky looms over an abandoned gas station in Texas. A solitary figure walks behind the bright red facade of a Mississippi pawnshop. A pink dress shines out from a store window on a decrepit main street in Georgia.
For images presenting Jörg Rubbert's vision of decline in America's rural south, the German photographer's latest collection is alive with color. But that's precisely the point.
"It's the contrast that's important," Rubbert said in a phone interview. "The strong colors, especially the blue sky, should underline the blatant contrast with the grey reality of the rural South."
In his forthcoming book, "Days Gone By: Roadside Photographs of the American South," Rubbert casts an outsider's lens on the Deep South.
Taken across 10 years' worth of visits to the US, the images depict towns and cities that the photographer describes as "forgotten" -- places marred by waning industry or shrinking populations.
But while Rubbert admits that the images are just "drive-by impressions," the second-hand stores, gold buyers and dilapidated strip malls tell a wider story about America's economy.
"When I was traveling throughout the South back in 2007, one thing that astonished me was the big difference between the boom town of Atlanta and the situation in the rural regions," he said. "They were obviously poorer and looked almost deserted -- very depressing in a way. So I decided to go on some of my own trips to the South to document the economic situation."

An 'atmosphere of emptiness'

This mission took the photographer across Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Texas. With a full-time job in the IT industry, Rubbert organized his travels around business trips to the US.
Despite the variety of towns and cities featured, the photographs share a common aesthetic quality. Most of them comprise a run-down building set against a blue sky, and all were taken from the "height of a car door handle," in order to recreate the photographer's first impression from the driver's seat.
A closing sale takes place at a store in Georgia. Rubbert's ten-year photography project also took him to Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Texas.
A closing sale takes place at a store in Georgia. Rubbert's ten-year photography project also took him to Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Texas. Credit: Jörg Rubbert
But the photos possess another notable similarity: the absence of people. And in the rare instances in which individuals are pictured, they serve to remind the viewer of how bare the surroundings are.
"(The photo series is) about showing the outcome of decline, especially after the financial crisis in 2008," he said. "It's more about the surroundings (and) the neighborhoods than the people themselves.
"The pictures should convey an atmosphere of emptiness and hopelessness; the few people in the pictures look lost. It seems that they have lost faith in a better future."

Hidden potential

Nonetheless, Rubbert insists that his book carries a message of hope for America's forgotten towns. With states like Texas, Alabama and Georgia currently enjoying some of the fastest GDP growth rates in America, the photographer says that his images are not necessary portrayals of terminal decline.
"The pictures document orphaned and deserted places (but) at the same time, they point out the hidden potential of these country towns," he said. "By showing the beauty of the objects from the past I try to pose questions about how these buildings can be refurbished and how the local main streets can be revitalized.
"Back in 2007, I took a series of photos in Hawkinsville, Georgia. One of them shows an abandoned food store and, in the background, a local cotton mill. When I came back in 2014 I took the same picture again. There was an Asian food store there and, in the background, there were new silos.
"This is what I mean by revitalization."