Rule Breakers: Samantha VanDeman

“I never want to see another picture of ________.” Industry veterans share their pet peeves on themes in contemporary photography. In this series they present their “rule” along with five photographs that break the rule in an effort to show that great work is the exception to the rule."

Rule Setter: Aline Smithson, photographer and editor of Lenscratch
Rule Breaker: Samantha VanDeman

I never want to see another photograph of an abandoned building with peeling paint shot with a wide-angle lens. I understand the fascination with the artifacts left behind, whether architectural or personal, in fact, I have my own images of western vistas shot from inside abandoned buildings left to the elements, but there has to be more to the story to make the work truly meaningful. I recently jurored an exhibition and went through hundreds of images of abandoned places. They all began to blur together as there was no real articulation of the work beyond the evident.

But I continue to stay interested in the work of Samantha VanDeman. I first met Samantha several years ago at the Filter Photo Festival in Chicago when I reviewed her work, and each year she has shared her progress with me. This is not a short term fascination with aging architecture and places once filled with life—she has spent years developing her seeing, continuing to seek out new locations, and new ways of visually articulating what she discovers. What I like about the work is that she manages to find beauty in the discarded and left behind, and often she accomplishes that with the use of light and color. Instead of focusing on things sadly discarded, her work celebrates the environment.

For the past five years, I have been exploring and photographing abandoned buildings throughout the country. I’m interested in the stories the vacant buildings have to tell. Through the use of color and light, I attempt to capture the beauty the once existed in these magnificent environments. By photographing these abandoned places, I hope to provide a visual record of what might be lost forever. In all my work, I have an intuitive connection to each abandonment. If I hear a voice or sense a presence I photograph inside.

She has two projects that I particularly like: Died Alone and No Vacancy.  With her series, Died Alone, Samantha looks at spaces where people finished their life in solitude and she examines the place and artifacts left behind.

The Died Alone series is very personal to me, because I took care of my Grandmother before she passed. After her passing, I had to go through all her belongings. In a way, I feel like I save a lot of the stuff in the abandoned homes by taking a picture of it.

No Vacancy focuses on hotels and motels that have been abandoned, some for decades. Like an archeologist, Samantha captures a variety of time periods, architectural styles, and objects as a form of capturing and documenting history. The focus and commitment to her projects make the work all that more fascinating.

—Aline Smithson