Julie Gautier-Downes' ghost town series has a forensic air to it. In one photograph, a cabin appears disemboweled, the insides marred by battered, peeling wood and long shreds of stained curtains. In another image, a rocking chair leans into the wall, the spindles of one arm popped from their bottom sockets, the other arm ripped out entirely. The series title, Scattered Remains, evokes a violent aftermath, but the dust and rust in every picture speaks to the truth of these spaces: They were abandoned, maybe even urgently, but they fell apart over the course of 50 to 100 years—a slow death.
"They are studies of the traces of people from late-1800s and early-1900s towns, and they're spaces that have been vacant for a long time," Gautier-Downes says. "They're of gold rush towns or silver mining towns, and a lot of the images are looking through windows at what's left behind."
The Spokane-based photographer exhibits Scattered Remains with an opening reception on Friday, Jan. 13, at the Zootown Arts Community Center. The show is a mix of still lifes and landscapes shot in Nevada, California, Montana and France. (There are 60 photographs in all, but Gautier-Downes will pare it down for the ZACC gallery space.)
What seems like a documentary project for history nuts is, it turns out, much more personal. In 2008, while attending college at UC Santa Cruz, Gautier-Downes got a frantic phone call from her mom. Their Santa Barbara home—where Gautier-Downes and her sister spent most of their childhood—was about to be consumed by a brush fire. Her mother asked her what she wanted to save.
"She was running around frantically grabbing what was important, like photos and family records," Gautier-Downes says. "We saved the dog—that was a good one. And all the family photos on the bulletin boards and photographs of dead grandparents. All my sister's paintings. Some blank photo albums, because she didn't realize they were blank. That was it. When you have 45 minutes to stuff your Prius full of stuff, it's hard to grab a lot."
Before the fire, Gautier-Downes says, her photography didn't have a theme or much direction, and it was never personal. After the fire, she started spending time in the Mojave Desert shooting abandoned houses and the objects that remained inside. Her pictures of mobile homes, skeletal house frames and boarded-up windows have more to do with what people choose to leave behind than with the special objects they take when they go. The newfound focus became a thread. Gautier-Downes finished school in Santa Cruz and went on to earn an MFA in photography at the Rhode Island School of Design. She moved to New York City and then Spokane, where she joined the Saranac Art Projects, an artists' cooperative. The whole time she was making pictures of abandoned homes.
Scattered Remains is an ongoing series she started in 2013, and Garnet Ghost Town is the only Montana representative in the project. An image from the Garnet hotel shows a tattered corset clinging to a dressform and pieces of a lantern on a cobwebbed desk. These photos have the calm of a still life and contrast nicely with some of the more violently wrecked imagery—though they all carry a certain mystery.
"I have books on ghost towns and I do find that history interesting," Gautier-Downes says. "But I consider this more of an art project than a documentary project. Just seeing these objects without knowing the actual story makes more room for whatever narrative the viewer wants it to have."
In her newest series, Tableau, Gautier-Downes has been creating installations made to look like deserted spaces based on places with which she's familiar. "Last Meal," for instance, imagines a wood-paneled kitchen a lot like the one in her grandparents' home, but staged as if they had walked away and never come back. The walk-in pieces are a little eerie and a little mournful, but pleasing in terms of texture and color.
"Making this work is just part of how I process things," she says. "I don't find it depressing. I try not to get too caught up in the sadness of these spaces. I think more about it as a project on curiosity, as something archaeological. These are quiet spaces where other people once lived."
Scattered Remains opens at the ZACC Fri., Jan. 13, with a reception from 5:30 to 8:30 PM.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Slow death"