As a rule, the photographer of picture postcards takes great pains to ensure that no humans stray into the viewfinder. Pity the poor photographer who tries to shoot the Washington Monument without its accompanying penumbra of insect tourists – the postcard industry, like all other exponents of American capitalism, insists on modernity, and people, with their insistence on wearing clothes and having hairstyles, can make pictures seem dated all too quickly.

People are noticeably absent in Eastman’s collection of reportage from those remote parts of the United States that have been bypassed by modernity. These are the realms of the bowling alley and the soda fountain, the iconic small-town America that has in most places been bulldozed and rendered obsolete by the strip mall and the multiplex. The lyrical text by William H Gass makes great play of the forlorn quality to these pictures: the implicit sadness of a peeling sign shedding its letters like autumn leaves, advertising something that no longer needs advertising; the loneliness of the empty banquettes in a closed diner; the sight of Main Street boarded up and derelict – everyone’s gone to the mall. And yet, while there is a sense of loss in Eastman’s images, there is also the feeling that life still goes on: beneath the shelter of a former service station in Fort Wayne, Indiana sits a mobile home and a hundred upright Hoovers in a rainbow of colours; the Fremont cinema’s façade indicates that it is currently screening Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night (an appropriately retro coupling for a mid-century picture palace). Look closely at many of these sad old shops and you will see that they are closed for the day, not closed for good, and the streets are suspiciously clean and litter-free for an area of supposed neglect. It is telling that the only people in the book are the tiny queue in a remote fast-food joint – one imagines Eastman waiting patiently for the crowd to dissipate, like the photographer at the Washington Monument, before realising that such a moment will never come and taking the picture anyway.

“We the people” have also vanished – or been banished – from Leisurama Now, a work that combines scholarly thoroughness with an undeniable sense of kitsch. The “Leisurama” of the title is a form of identikit 1960s beach house sold at Macy’s, erected in scores in Montauk, NY. Paul Sahre has photographed 164 of these houses, all from roughly the same angle, to show how these formerly identical constructions have diverged over the past 40 years. Their various owners have added wishing wells, verandahs, extensions, carports (with a white stretch limo, in one instance) and a great deal of gravel, each converting their homes from the factory standard in their own way. This is the eternal paradox of America – the mass-market capitalism that homogenises and flattens versus the cult of individualism that personalises and subdivides. Yet, again, where are those individuals, the people who made the houses look that way? As with Eastman, they have been studiously omitted. There is sleight-of-hand in all of these images. The careful excision of human life forces us to focus on what might otherwise seem unremarkable, sweeping aside the dust to expose the archaeological strata of US society that still lie there beneath the modern.

First published in World of Interiors issue 311. Reproduced with permission.

Vanishing America

by Michael Eastman  (Rizzoli)

Leisurama Now

by Paul Sahre  (Princeton)

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