Streets: Into the Sunset

These photo-fabrications are an unsettling mix of fantasy and reality.

Bushes by Leigh Merrill
Bushes, 30 x 38”, archival inkjet print, 2009.

The Streets series — images that waver between reality and fantasy — arose from my ongoing interests in regionalism, and more specifically in the cultural signifiers of particular places. I’ve photographed the places where I’ve lived, motivated by curiosity about the architecture that surrounds us and how it reflects larger ideas of beauty, class, romanticism and even perfection.

In 2007, when I was living in the Bay Area, I began to explore the urban environment, and became fascinated by its complexity. I started to photograph homes, and eventually photographed thousands; I then digitally assembled and reassembled these photographs to create new images; each is typically made from several photographs of individual houses combined with tens to hundreds of smaller bits and pieces from other photographs of houses in the region. At first these images might look plausible; but closer inspection reveals that they are fabricated, and in fact illogical.

View Slideshow


These fabrications highlight how our built environments themselves are composites of multiple architectural and landscape styles. These real/unreal images raise questions about the visual cues, barriers and borders that are created in city settings. In White Street, for instance, the structures are all one color, suggesting issues of community, zoning and exclusion. Some of the images show pocket lawns, the narrow strips of grass between sidewalks and driveways. Too small to function as more than a token of the idea of “lawn,” they underscore the desire for a sense of space — and spaciousness — and land ownership. Similarly, topiaries evoke landed estates or royal gardens. In an American residential landscape they can imply a desire for wealth or luxury, and also provide clues as to the owners’ sensibilities. In Bushes, I engage this issue by creating a street with three homes, each with symmetrical topiaries in their front yards, ornamented to varying degrees. Also in this photograph, the street has been composited from digital files to create what looks like a Rorschach inkblot pattern in the cement — a metaphor for the unconscious desires embodied in and revealed by our anthropogenic environments.

I am fascinated by how seemingly insignificant elements, like small plots of lawn or idiosyncratic topiaries, can hint at who we are. In this series my intention is to mix fact and fiction to open up questions and conversations about our individual desires and collective ideals.

Leigh Merrill, “Streets: Into the Sunset,” Places Journal, May 2010. Accessed 10 Jun 2023.

Comments are closed. If you would like to share your thoughts about this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.

Past Discussions View
  • Stu

    05.27.2010 at 23:30

    An excellent essay for excellent body of photographs. Great job, Leigh!

  • rynot

    05.28.2010 at 12:24

    guess i don't get it...this is where i live. and it looks like where i live, but some took pictures of where i live and spliced them in photoshop. nice retouching work, struggling to see the point oitherwise

  • sarah

    05.28.2010 at 12:56

    Fascinating -- your hyperreal reconstructions of our constructed spaces are eerily free of human presence, but speak volumes about human nature. Well done.

  • Thomas

    05.28.2010 at 15:16

    I love the window detail in "Christmas". Your compositing skills are very impressive.

  • Thomas

    05.28.2010 at 15:30

    Your comments on unconcious desires related to space called to mind the words of Paul Tillich...

    "Men create systems of security in order to protect their space. But they can only repress their anxiety; they cannot banish it, for this anxiety anticipates the final spacelessness which is implied in finitude."

  • wayne

    05.28.2010 at 18:02

    bored to death here.

  • Ayn Roberts

    05.28.2010 at 21:32

    The images evoke the hyperreal environments that us as a culture are becoming so use to seeing. Your blog entry gave these visuals an interesting context to consider while viewing!

  • Kate D. Timmerman

    05.29.2010 at 15:37

    You are the Diane Arbus of street photos. The street images capture a normality that is not beautiful. Like many Arbus photos there is a sense of unreality that is distinctive.

    Congratulations on creating a disconcerting body of images that speak to a particular aspect of American culture.

  • James

    06.01.2010 at 12:36

    Beautiful. The skewed perspective is subtle enough to give the feeling of a dream; it seems natural but then, not quite. These all seem to be taken in San Francisco's Sunset district... hence the title?

  • Brian

    06.02.2010 at 02:31

    taking it to the streets! well played merrill, well played.

  • Nancy Levinson

    06.03.2010 at 16:51

    In response to James, Yes, the original photographs — from which these photo-fabrications were assembled — were taken in the Sunset in San Francisco.