“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.
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.”
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.”
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.”