Oct. 20 2010 10:54 AM

Photographer Amanda Dahlgren turns her lens toward the housing crisis

Photographer Amanda Dahlgren turns her lens toward the phenomenon of foreclosed homes.
    A cozy three-bedroom home. A clean, white SUV. A husband, kid and a dog. It's easy to look at photographer Amanda Dahlgren—with her wavy blond hair, shiny wedding ring and hip glasses with little half-moon ivory details on the rims—and think she's living the American Dream. But Dahlgren can't keep herself from focusing on the dreams of others—and doing a little dreaming herself.

    “I have this, sort of”—Dahlgren pauses as she checks her GPS coordinates on her phone and turns her steering wheel in the right direction—“twisted love affair with real estate. Driving around a neighborhood at night, and it's cool outside and the lights are on and it's all warm in the houses, and you just think, I wish I lived there. I don't know, there's just something—.”

    Dahlgren pauses again, glances at the GPS and speeds up. She spent a week researching her next shot location, and now she's racing to get to the spot when the light is right—just after sunset is perfect. We head northeast from Dahlgren's neighborhood in Bay Park to Scripps Ranch as the sun quickly sinks lower in the sky.

    A few weeks ago, Dahlgren stopped by a home show in Carmel Valley. The development company markets houses one at a time, then invites the prospective buyers to a “viewing party” in hopes of creating competition.

    “They say they don't have anything available,” Dahlgren explains. “And, instead, they hold these parties and they lock the doors behind you and create this fake urgency. They're sick, they really are.”

    A small part of Dahlgren is still interested in buying a new home, but, mostly, she's just feeding her inner real-estate geek. Dahlgren admits to spending her free time touring model homes for fun. She's been known to surf the internet for long stretches of time, too, looking through hundreds of listings and fantasizing about moving into a bigger home in the perfect neighborhood. And while the rest of her family is content where they are, a few years ago, her desire for a better life got so strong that she started pushing her husband to get serious about buying a house.

    That was right before the real-estate bubble burst, and now she thanks her husband for being so stubborn.

    “Left to my own devices,” she says, “I definitely could have been a victim of this whole housing crash.”

    Dahlgren's SUV glides across the fresh asphalt in a newer development in Scripps Ranch. Bougainvillea crawls over a wooden fence lining the road, and a beautiful, nearly-full moon lights the shiny roofs of a crop of brand-new homes. She pulls up in front of a large, empty house sitting on a dirt lot. A for-sale sign stands in the bare yard and, along with standard real-estate jargon, there's a little appendage hanging at the bottom of the sign that desperately begs buyers to give the house a chance: “I'm gorgeous inside!” Taped to the front door is a piece of paper from the bank warning the former residents that entering the home is considered “tresspassing” (sic).

    “I have this compassion for these people who have gotten themselves into this mess,” Dahlgren says, pulling out a big black bag filled with camera equipment. Tonight, she's shooting on a 4x5 film camera but using her digital camera with a Lensbaby Composer lens as backup (she's still experimenting with film). “But then, it's also this kind of sick—,” she says, pausing. “I feel lucky and smug at the same time. There's sort of this voyeuristic—.” She pauses again. “You can look all this stuff up and you can see people have made these terrible choices. You know, like this house. They stretched themselves so thin to buy this house that they couldn't even put landscaping in. I don't know the story. Maybe they bought the house, then lost their job. I don't know.”

    Dahlgren, a commercial photographer by day and an MFA student by night, says her “Distressed” photo series has been about trying to figure it out. She wants to tell the complex stories of people who've lost their homes, but, at the same time, she's commenting on the absurdity of it. Dahlgren looks through short-sale listings and purposely seeks out the foreclosures she thinks are the most ostentatious. She then scouts the location and makes sure she can get a good angle. When she prints the photos, she flips them upside-down and adds a light layer of text that she takes from the home's listing.

    “The aesthetic for me is sort of saccharin,” she says, describing the more than 30 photos she's shot for the series. “The colors are overly saturated and fake-looking, and that sort of is supposed to signal that whole materialist obsession. Kind of gaudy. So those colors come out, I think, really well in the twilight hours, and they sort of feel romantic in a way, too—sort of the ‘American Dream' of this home, right? And then, the flipping of the image was—I kind of got this hair-brained idea when I first did it, like, oh, they're upside-down. The people in their mortgage are upside-down. So it was just a silly, stupid thing that I did one time. But when I flipped it, it looked right because it took me out of depiction and into seeing the colors and the shapes. And that level of abstraction, I feel, helps the series be less documentary.”

    In other words, it pushes the series closer to fine art.

    “It resembled sort of a typical California dream,” says Natasha Egan, associate director and curator at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. Egan was this year's judge for the Art of Photography Show, which took in more than 14,000 submissions. She says Dahlgren's image stayed with her, and she ultimately chose it to be in the show because it was both timely and telling. “I liked the idea that she presented it upside down because of the metaphor of what that means—to be sort of underwater on the house. And I liked the added text that went over…. I thought it added multiple layers, and I like photographs that not only have physical layers to them, but metaphorical layers, too.”

    After a few hours capturing the very last of the fading light, Dahlgren has her shot. She picks up her tripods and packs them back into her car.

    “The photo I shot last week, I love. It's my favorite one so far,” Dahlgren says. “It's a house in South Park, a house that stood out in the neighborhood. Probably some flipper that went way overboard…. I'm trying to concentrate on the people who really screwed up and that you really shouldn't feel sorry for. But then again, they got unlucky. Everybody got unlucky. It's hard to say that anybody deserves it.”

    Amanda Dahlgren's photo, “Distressed #11: 7643 Seattle Dr, 91941: Master Suite with Jacuzzi Tub located Downstairs” is on view at the Art of Photography Show at Lyceum Theatre Gallery, Horton Plaza, Downtown, through Nov. 7.


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