Essay by Howard S. Decker, FAIA
Architect and Urban Designer
Former Chief Curator, The National Building Museum
“Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.”
– Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
“All cities are mad: but the madness is gallant. All cities are beautiful: but the beauty is grim.”
– Christopher Morley, Where the Blue Begins
Over a period of 20 years, Barry Gfeller, quietly and alone, traveled across the US and Canada from his home in Washington State making photographs of dozens and dozens of cities and towns. He would go during his vacations, a week or two at a time. He would shoot many rolls of film on each of his outings, and his collection would eventually grow to 50,000 images.
Gfeller photographed our cities and towns during a period of great change: the small shops and the street life of neighborhoods, of Main Streets, of corner stores and local diners, was waning, disappearing, being replaced by the mall, the franchise, the “big box.” It is our uncommon good fortune that Gfeller made his trips. Because of his work we have an important archive of what we were, what life in North America’s cities and towns was like before it changed forever.
But beyond simply recording the changing places of over 44 states and 6 provinces, Gfeller’s pictures are powerful, idiosyncratic, and compelling artifacts. Many are haunting, filled with cinematic possibility, rich with narratives we can tease from each, and embellish: the storefront diner, the apartment upstairs, the cab stand at the back, two feet of snow, evening coming, no cars in sight, and a train in the distance. Evocative, many of these images, and strong.
And extraordinarily, it is the buildings that speak in Gfeller’s images. The photographs are never focused on people, though occasionally people can be seen. Instead, Gfeller shows us buildings as the principle characters in the theater of America life. Most of these buildings originated in an earlier time – the first decades of the 20th century or before. Each has been revised, modified in contingent and provisional fashion, to add contemporary narratives to the older stories of their origins. And the language, the vernacular of this architecture is uniquely American. It is this that makes the collection both exceptional and essential.
The Gfeller Collection needs to find a permanent home, where each image can be assessed, digitized, conserved, understood, interpreted. The late 20th century has no other real resource as influential and rich as this that focuses on our built environment. Out of gratitude alone we should embrace the collection, and Gfeller, and his odd and wonderful life’s work.