Photographer’s ‘America Is Dead’ Project Chronicles Abandoned Malls Across The US

by Chris Illuminati
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America Is Dead Photos

Foraging through late night cable for any entertainment, I settled on a classic film from my youth that introduced my impressionable young brain to sex, drugs, and my first naked breasts — Fast Times At Ridgemont High.

It had been years since I watched the film. There was a chunk of my youth when a VHS copy of Fast Times was a go-to movie to pass the never-ending hours of summers spent in my grandmother’s split level in the New Jersey suburbs.

The opening scene, playing out during the credits, depicted a bustling mall on a weekend night. Obviously over-exaggerated for cinematic purposes, the mall or less commerce and more “party scene” though that movie experience wasn’t much different than my personal experience as a child of the late 80s.

The mall in my youth was a social scene — a place to go to meet friends, make new, get ignored by girls from other schools who were way hotter than the girls ignoring me in my school. Occasionally my friends and I would actually buy stuff, a new cassette tape or poster, anything to make home a more tolerable place to be after the mall shut down for the night.

As the malls aged, so did we, long forgotten after obtaining driver’s licenses or getting jobs to pay for the gas to get us to the beach, the mountains, or anywhere not our hometown. Stores shuttered, entire malls shut down, leaving just an empty building.

Even though it feels as though the era of the shopping mall is passed, in 2010 the number of US shopping malls was 107,773 compared to 66,972 in 1986, every day new ground is broken for an expansive string of high-end stores along major roads and highways. Even with massive malls constructed in the 60s and 70s breaking down just across the highway, long abandoned or begging for a facelift, developers will choose to start anew and construct their vision of the future of real-life commerce.

Tag Christof is an artist who shares my affinity for the malls gone by. His photography project, America Is Dead, highlights some of the abandoned malls he’s stumbled across on his travels.

The photos are both nostalgic and haunting, chronicling a piece of Americana that soon may go away entirely, even though the remnants will be left standing for decades.

Revisting The Abandoned Malls Of America

When did you discover your love of and talent for photography? 

After undergrad, I worked in a photography agency in Milan. The creative director, who is now a good friend, was a pretty well-known fashion photographer and even when he wasn’t in the studio, he was always shooting day to day scenes with his little Contax. His work inspired me to pick up a film camera for the first time and because I was really terrible when I started out, I forced myself to keep shooting until I got better. Little by little over a couple of years — and thanks to exposure to some really exceptional photographers — it just became something I did.

Explain your ‘America is Dead’ project. 

It’s a project I’ve been working on intermittently for a few years, and at it’s most essential it is an exploration of America’s great disposable capitalist architecture from the 20th century. Americans have always been good at chucking out old things for anything bigger, newer, faster, and cheaper but the past two decades have proven that even our spaces are disposable. I always like to make the point that this is not at all intended to be porn, though. A fair few people have gotten some attention for rubbernecking disaster photos of ruined old malls, but I’m searching for a different side to these places — a real beauty in the ideals they were built with.

What was the inspiration?

I suppose the inspiration was one-part reverence for this particular type of Modernism that nobody has ever had much respect for, as well as the desire to experience as much of these places as possible before they’re entirely gone. I also really love being out on the road.

Is there a specific fascination with shopping malls?

Fascination yes, romantic nostalgia no. They’re just such spatial and cultural anomalies — huge, air conditioned cities in the middle of suburbs surrounded by hundreds of acres of asphalt. The fact that they’ve gone from having such huge roles in American social and civic life to crumbling eyesores in one generation is an incredible thing.

Any words of advice for a novice photographer like myself?

Instagram is great, but it’s conditioned us to only value a photo for the number of likes it gets. I say, just be genuine with your subject and for the most part, damn the likes. Or, if you can’t damn the likes, at least give yourself a way to consider your work in a space other than social media. If your subject genuinely interests you, you’ll be a lot more driven to keep exploring that thing, and you’ll eventually make much better images.

What inspires you?

Good design. Thought provoking art and writing. Intellectual, artistic and personal integrity and truthfulness.

What motivates you?

Curiosity. The joy of being out on the road. Trying to become more like the people I admire.

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