discerning preservation

“The lost and wondrous wreckage of America. The ceaseless road to nowhere. Yeah, that’s my home.”

That’s how John Mulhouse introduces visitors to his blog, City Of Dust. His blog (A term I can never bring myself to like) documents in words and photographs places abandoned, crumbling, stuck in the middle of nowhere, and to be blunt places few people have the intellect to appreciate. His work resonated with me as it is much like what Robert Clark and I do.

So, how did a Minnesota native end up down South showing Southerners the unappreciated beauty of ruins and desolation? Well, he came to Athens. Like me, he is a University of Georgia graduate, having earned a Master of Science in Botany and Plant Biology and he, as Robert Clark and I strive to be, is a preservationist of sorts. A self-taught photographer, he takes shots of abandoned and forlorn places. His images possess a haunting quality. You keep staring at them.

Coca-Cola Bottling Company, Augusta, GA. This is one of the last three shots I’ve taken in Augusta. I must’ve passed the place hundreds of times, but it wasn’t until this moment that I thought to take a photo of it. . Mulhouse
Coca-Cola Bottling Company, Augusta, GA. This is one of the last three
shots I’ve taken in Augusta. I must’ve passed the place hundreds of times,
but it wasn’t until this moment that I thought to take a photo of it. J. Mulhouse

Today John works as the project manager at the Sevilleta Long-Term Ecological Research Program in Albuquerque, New Mexico. As for City of Dust, “lots of people think the name is a reference to the desert. But it really alludes to the dry, red soil of Georgia.”

Aside from his work, his interests, he says, are “confusion, heartbreak, rootlessness, dark rooms, and cheap hotels.” He likes ghost towns too, as do I. John moved to Albuquerque in 2009 after spending the previous decade in California, Minnesota, Georgia, and Tennessee. He writes that he “loves the desert, realizes it doesn’t care too much about him, and thinks that’s all as it should be.”

For a good while John covered Georgialina. “For some time,” he said, “I spent my mornings and nights in Georgia and my days in South Carolina.”

Much of that time was in and around Augusta. That’s how, when I was researching the Great Augusta Fire I came across City Of Dust. Since then, in one of life’s surprises that proves the world is a small place, John and I crossed paths again thanks to the Carolina Bays book I’m writing. John’s botanical background led him to Savannah River Site where he studied vegetation change in bays at SRS for his thesis. His professor, Becky Sharitz, along with Linda Lee, accompanies Robert and me to SRS on our bay missions. “If not for Becky,” said John, “I wouldn’t have ended up in Georgia/South Carolina and might never have taken a serious photograph. The South is such a photogenic place and I was happy to find that Augusta–a city that doesn’t always have the best reputation–still caught my eye in a big way.”

John didn’t start City of Dust until he finished graduate school in the fall of 2004. By that time, he had moved back to Minnesota. He had a large number of photos from Georgia and South Carolina and felt compelled to get them out there. “I’d been considering how best to do that for a while, actually. I hadn’t really thought about documenting the histories of the buildings and locations until I began writing the blog and then it came naturally.”

Kahrs Grocery, Augusta, GA. I really love this building but it’s almost impossible to get into. One day my friend and I just got a lucky break. The staircase inside is incredible, massive at the entryway then winding around the walls as it goes up three stories. Kahrs Grocery is also badly fire-damaged, making it fairly dangerous to explore. Initially, I thought it was probably built in the 1940’s. I was blown away to learn that it was actually constructed by German immigrants before the Civil War. J. Mulhouse
Kahrs Grocery, Augusta, GA. I really love this building but it’s
almost impossible to get into. One day my friend and I just got a lucky
break. The staircase inside is incredible, massive at the entryway then
winding around the walls as it goes up three stories. Kahrs Grocery is
also badly fire-damaged, making it fairly dangerous to explore. Initially,
I thought it was probably built in the 1940’s. I was blown away to learn
that it was actually constructed by German immigrants before the Civil
War. J. Mulhouse

Why sit on all these photographs he figured. And when he got the first comment from someone telling him about their connection to some place he had photographed, he was hooked. “Seemingly forever,” he said.

This August 10th will mark the tenth year he’s provided City of Dust to grateful visitors, an amazing thing considering John never even owned a camera when he moved to Georgia. So, how did his love for photography come about?

“It wasn’t until one of my favorite places to find respite from the sun during bike rides in Athens—an old barn on the outskirts of town—was demolished that I started to think I should capture these places for posterity before they disappeared. I began by using disposable cameras with no thought for anything other than amassing the images for myself.”

Stevens Creek, SC. This is a very early shot taken with a disposable camera. The sun flares are coming off the plastic lens. I took many early photos on the way to and from mountain bike rides. There are lots of good trails in South Carolina. I’d have my friend stop the truck and I’d jump out, take a quick photo, and we’d be back on our way. There was no time to worry about lighting or sun position, nor did I really care. J. Mulhouse
Stevens Creek, SC. This is a very early shot taken with a disposable
camera. The sun flares are coming off the plastic lens. I took many early
photos on the way to and from mountain bike rides. There are lots of good
trails in South Carolina. I’d have my friend stop the truck and I’d jump
out, take a quick photo, and we’d be back on our way. There was no time to
worry about lighting or sun position, nor did I really care. J. Mulhouse

The photography is quite personal to John, as well. “I’d cut myself pretty well adrift from the life I’d known back home and felt a strange kinship with these places. I grew quite fond of them. I still think that when (or if!) my photography has any merit at all, it is because I am trying to use these places to learn or acknowledge something about myself, reflect it back like a mirror, and then pass it along to others. To this day, old and abandoned places remain the only subject matter I seriously photograph.”

John acknowledges that the South, particularly Augusta, and nearby locations in South Carolina, got things going. “While a barn in Athens got the wheels turning, I never took a picture in that town. And it’s no coincidence that I hadn’t ever owned a camera back home and then suddenly became enthralled with the minute and even obscure details of my new surroundings. The South will always be a big part of who I am and for that I’m grateful. Despite now living in the dusty desert, City of Dust will always be a reference to the dry, red dirt of Georgia that covered my shoes in the summer while I searched for new places to photograph.”

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Image: All photos by and with permission of John Mulhouse.

Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Tom grew up in Lincoln County, Georgia, where four wonderful English teachers gave him a love for language. People first came to know Tom’s work in South Carolina Wildlife magazine, where he wrote features and served as managing editor.Tom’s written over 1,000 columns and features and seven traditionally published books. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, and his and Robert Clark’s latest volume of Reflections of South Carolina. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground in 2011 and 2012.He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia.Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina. Visit my website at www.tompoland.net Email me at [email protected]