The town of Bodie, California, stands in the desert like the Mary Celeste in dry dock. It looks as if the inhabitants have popped out for a swift half down at the saloon and never come back, or – more plausibly – vaporised into thin air. Everywhere the signs of life are arrested: pairs of Harold Lloyd-style spectacles lie on open account books; gambling chips are piled up by the roulette wheel; a 1927 Dodge truck still stands by the gasoline pumps at the filling station; the blackboard in the schoolroom reads: “Eighth Grade your projects are due on Friday”. Those class projects, it is fair to say, are a little overdue; if the pupils are still alive, they will by now be shuffling around retirement homes in slippers and amusing baseball caps saying “Spending my grandchildren’s inheritance”. Their erstwhile classroom, like the rest of Bodie, today lies immersed in thick dust.

But how does a town come to be like this? How can it be that the populace abandoned it so rapidly? These are the questions that Berthold Steinhilber’s photographs pose, rather than answer. Bodie is just one of the former mining settlements that the German snapper has visited and recorded, along with such evocatively named outposts as Chloride, NM, Stumptown, CO, Widtsoe Junction, UT, and Gold Point, NV (which, with its six inhabitants, is only nominally a “ghost town”). All of them have been shot at twilight, using long exposures and, most crucially, a converted ship’s spotlight powered by a car battery; the long shadows and eerie luminescence created by this method lend an ethereal quality to the pictures that is entirely appropriate to the subject matter. The derelict shell of a Chevrolet, through Steinhilber’s lens, becomes bleached and skeletal, a 20th-century update of the bovine skull of Wild West cliché. The Sheep Mountain Tunnel Mill has the look of a sinister shack in a Hollywood B-feature; in the photographs – for reasons unexplained, the mill appears twice in this book, in almost identical shots – it seems quite plausible that it is an intricate miniature, conjured up by a special-effects team using spent matchsticks and a job lot of model-railway-issue fake plastic trees.

“Paradoxical as it may seem at first glance, these pictures focus not on the towns’ past but wholly on their present existence,” points out Wim Wenders in his foreword. And, in spite of his irritating predilection for using small capitals, Wenders is right. What is interesting about these ghost towns is not how or why they were abandoned, but that they have been abandoned at all. It is the human-sized hole that gives these photographs their calm appeal.

First published in World of Interiors issue 251. Reproduced with permission.

Ghost Towns of the American West

by Berthold Steinhilber  (Abrams)

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