The Design Observer Group

Posted 12.23.10

Jesus de Francisco

The Rings of Saturn

This then, I thought, as I looked round about me, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.
— W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

When I was a kid I wanted to be an astronomer. One day I would visit Saturn and walk along the immense plains of its icy rings, until I'd arrive back where I'd landed. I dreamt of the adventures I would have, the strange creatures I would encounter. Years later I can smile at the naïveté of my aspirations; yet somehow back then I'd intuited what I've learned since ― that our travels are mostly circular; there's hardly ever a simple destination.


The photographs collected here, taken over a period of several years in Southern California, Nevada and Germany, are the result of some of my circular journeys; and it's that circularity that connects them. These images were never intended to be a series — and they may not even belong together in that traditional sense. But after discovering the novels of W.G. Sebald — including The Rings of Saturn — I began to think in new ways about my apparently aimless wanderings, about the mental detours I take when I take pictures.

No matter how unintentional, any human intervention will leave a scar on the landscape. My photographs remind me of the stories I have imagined to justify those scars. But they also set me off on new directions, on journeys literal and intellectual.

A disused railroad line, looking out of place behind a gentrifying neighborhood in El Segundo, takes me back to the era when the aerospace industry was booming in Southern California, and that discovery in turn leads me to a housing complex for World War II veterans in Culver City. A walk through Berlin inspires the search for the home of a German refugee in the old eastern part of the city, and that journey then leads me to an abandoned kindergarten in Karl-Marx-Stadt — now Chemnitz, in post-unification Germany — where I can see traces of the photographs that once covered its walls.

Sebald's writings, with their journeys to places with troubled histories, always make me melancholy. I felt a similar melancholy while exploring the places pictured here. They are all modest, the kind of places that usually seem invisible, that we don't normally bother looking at. A Nevada town that has seen better days, an old railroad in L.A. that's been paved over, a forgotten Soviet Army facility in the former East Germany — all are somehow marked by those who once inhabited them.