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Inside the ghost houses of the Mojave Desert

In the second of our Class of 2014 series we visit the abandoned homes of Wonder Valley with RISD grad Julie Gautier-Downes

RISD graduate Julie Gautier-Downes shoots loss and abandonment in an unsettlingly beautiful way, her shots tying scenes of rejected domesticity to the unmistakeably sparse and still Mojave Desert in California. Originally starting out as an art major with a focus on painting, RISD was always the dream for Julie but wasn't financially viable until completing an undergraduate course back in Santa Cruz, California. After honing her style and realising that she was now shooting more than she was painting, Julie realised that she needed to be behind the lens, "I needed to be able to move around and get different perspectives" she said. "I wanted to work in multiples and larger series. Photography seemed like the medium I needed to be working with". 

For her graduate portfolio, At A Loss, Julie undertook a wide-ranging and sometimes dangerous mission – to shoot the abandoned ghost-towns of "Wonder Valley" in the Mojave Desert, an isolated, scorched landscape infamous for its eerily empty shells of family-life. We caught up with Julie to talk more about the series, West Coast 'junk art' and how it all nearly turned Hills Have Eyes on one shoot. 

Talk us through the core themes and aims behind At A Loss - abandoned sights of domesticity seem to be your favourite considering Echoes of Home?

Julie Gautier-Downes: In At A Loss, I grapple with the idea of the failed home – a place that held so much promise, the potential to shelter and nurture a family that is no longer of use. A home is such a powerful grounding force for most people. My parents split up when I was young, so I grew up being shuttled between houses, and eventually between the East and West Coasts. Despite my mothers’ best efforts, it was difficult to comprehend what “home” was, because it was plural, fragmented, and constantly changing. I was in a perpetual state of adjusting, coming and going, always forgetting my homework, security blanket, or uniform at the other house, trying to reconcile my identity. When I was on the East Coast, I was the blonde California girl. When I was on the West Coast I was the hip New Yorker. Then when I was eighteen, the house that one of my mothers had lived in since before the split, burned down in a brush fire. The house had been the one consistent environment throughout my childhood, so the event further cut off my sense of history. At A Loss, comes out of these experiences. The feelings I had of dislocation, my fear of abandonment and the lack of control I had. The objects in the space are surrogates for the objects that I misplaced or lost. They also serve to answer the questions I have about what happened to the missing people who once inhabited these abandoned homes. This work is about struggling to make connections with people who've left, but also reveling in the sublime beauty that I notice in the way these spaces have fallen apart.

How did you go about finding these sites? Did you shoot them all in one area?  

Julie Gautier-Downes: The majority are in the Mojave Desert in California. I became interested in this space on a trip that I organized for a photography class. I found myself in the heart of the desert, and I fell in love with the barren, sun-bleached landscape. I started working in Wonder Valley (forty-five minutes from Twentynine Palms, CA), an area where there are hundreds of abandoned houses. Then I did research to find other ghost towns. When I told friends about the project they would suggest other towns or areas to check out. Often I just stumbled upon houses that were abandoned on my way to a place that I had heard about. These dilapidated houses can be found everywhere; I just had to keep my eyes open.

Which abandoned building had the best story/shot for you?

Julie Gautier-Downes: There's a pink garage in Wonder Valley that's full of cards, clothes, snapshots, letters, and other personal objects. I have visited this place so many times. Every time I find something new to photograph. During one visit, I took one of my favorite pictures. I captured a chair, with orange flower print, standing alone outside with some pale brush behind it. Later I paired the photograph with the school portrait of a young boy that I found in the garage.

There's a huge sense of waste and decay to this series - nature's taken over and the mountains in the background dominate a lot of the shots. Was that a conscious move or did you tend to shoot spontaneously?

Julie Gautier-Downes: I question our material culture in this work. This work has grown out of the West Coast tradition of Junk Art, but instead of simply showing evidence, I study the evidence of past occupants to evoke the feeling of being there. I try to use the camera’s frame to show the moments that I experienced in a space that most people would not want to or cannot experience. I'm curious about the reasons things were left behind. Is it simply because the people did not have the means or time to take everything? Or, is it because these were the things that did not mean anything to them? I am especially surprised when I find snapshots because that's the one thing I would salvage if it was my home.

“The scariest part for me is the first moments of entering an abandoned space because despite the space looking abandoned. Many of the regions I shoot in are quite desolate and often lack phone reception, so if I end up in trouble no one would know” – Julie Gautier-Downes

You avoid shooting people in your work - why is that? 

Julie Gautier-Downes: When my mother’s house burned down, my sister and I went with her to see what was left when the evacuation order was lifted. My sister and I were met by a barrage of newspaper photographers. We were experiencing one of the most difficult moments of our lives and they were documenting it. No one asked for permission before taking our pictures. They were only concerned with showing the drama. That feeling of vulnerability has stuck with me, it colors the approach I have taken as a photographer. This isn't to say that I haven't photographed people, but I am careful. At A Loss is about the mark that people leave on the landscape and in the places they inhabit. I think of this work as portraits of missing figures. By not showing people, I am given the freedom to explore and at times use fictional characters to evoke the feeling of loss.

Did you ever find yourself getting creeped out shooting in these deserted homes that still have cans on the stove and signs of human life lingering etc? Any unnerving moments?

Julie Gautier-Downes: Yes, I'm very careful when I photograph these spaces. When I arrive I look for signs of the house being truly uninhabited. I look for missing doors, broken windows, the lack of a car in the driveway. The scariest part for me is the first moments of entering an abandoned space because despite the space looking abandoned from the outside, there could be squatters. Many of the regions I shoot in are quite desolate and often lack phone reception, so if I end up in trouble no one would know. For this reason, I try to bring a friend. Last summer, I went on a trip to the Mojave Desert alone. I was in a town that had mostly been abandoned due to contaminated ground water. I stopped at a house that had some beautiful graffiti on the exterior. As I started walking around the perimeter, I noticed cats in the garage which was strange because the house was on the outskirts of a ghost town. Then I walked by a shed and noticed fresh looking cans of paint and oil. I started to feel uncomfortable. So, lugging my tripod and large format camera, I walked to the next lot to make sure the house was vacant before I went inside. I paused there for a couple minutes until I felt less nervous. As I walked into the backyard, I heard a coughing from inside the house. That was when I felt the panic rising and suddenly a man called out, “Is someone there?”. I explained how sorry I was, that I didn't know anyone was here, and that I was leaving. I ran with my equipment to my car, that was probably one of the scariest moments I've had while photographing.

If you could shoot anywhere in the US where would that be?

Julie Gautier-Downes: I've been dying to explore the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, particularly the former Japanese occupied island of Kiska.

Who do you think is challenging the status quo in photography right now?

Julie Gautier-Downes: Kurt Tong’s In Case It Rains In Heaven, is a wonderful body of work. The project questions the Chinese tradition of purchasing paper replicas of luxury objects and burning them as a way of sending them to the dead. He captured meticulously constructed paper objects and then burned them.