Not My Beautiful House

Stark photographs of faded American icons from Levittown to the Corvette Stingray.


Martin Hyers and William Mebane are collectors, photographically, of the artifacts of American life. They began by taking road trips together, setting off in a chosen direction, armed with hundreds of sheets of film to record still lifes of everyday objects in shops, diners, workplaces, and whatever homes they were able to talk their way into. For reasons partly practical — at first, they had only nights free — and partly aesthetic, they photographed exclusively with flash. They liked the way it gave their images the feel of forensic photographs, the harsh frontal lighting exposing every detail of a scene. Indeed, their work is a sort of evidence gathering. The flash decontextualizes, sealing the photographed object in an airtight capsule.

Their work is a sort of evidence gathering.

After several years of close-ups, Hyers and Mebane stepped back to look at two larger objects that defined American life in the mid-to-late 20th century: cars and suburban homes. They began with the series Levittown, which focused on the iconic postwar tract development of Levittown, New York. The photos remind me of snow globes, each house tucked behind a screen of glowing white flakes. It seems a fitting association for the mass-produced buildings, modeled on an idea of home quaintly suited for tchotchkeification. These are not sentimental photos, however. The flash creates a kind of visual display case, isolating the buildings as objects for contemplation, their flaws exposed by the severe lighting and highly detailed resolution.

For their series Houses, Hyers and Mebane applied the same hermetic view to a variety of housing types in different parts of the country. These images are even starker. They invite you to scrutinize small details: the decorations visible in the open windows, the oddities in landscaping, the damaged siding, sidewalk cracks, and loose roof tiles. The houses are varied in style, age, and condition, but they are clearly variations on a theme, and all seem somehow dated. The photos are like dioramas of a passing age.

The series Cars makes a fitting complement, with individual automobiles centered in a mostly darkened frame. But here the photographs call attention to the surrounding context. Clothing in a thrift store window seems to crowd around a small white sedan; a long Monte Carlo is parked in front of an apartment building with matching trim; a dented sedan sits in a desolate, oil-stained parking lot. The photos drain the cars of the sexiness that defines the American automotive ideal. Even a yellow Corvette seems drab, with rust in its wheels, pale under the blaze of golden fall leaves; a nearby auto repair sign reminds us of its material fallibility. The cars are shown for what they are — hunks of metal and rubber that have enabled a lifestyle of mixed blessings and uncertain future.

Martin Hyers, William Mebane, and Aaron Rothman, “Not My Beautiful House,” Places Journal, November 2014. Accessed 01 Oct 2023.

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