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Admire the 'Just So Perfect' Derelict Shacks of SoCal's Desert

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Ed Freeman spent years in the music industry—as the road manager on the Beatles' last tour, as the composer of orchestral arrangements for Carly Simon and Cher, as the producer for Don McLean's American Pie—but insists that photography "was always my first love." He got his first "semi-pro" camera when he was 11, and, now, decades, albums, and countless sunrise shoots later, he admits: "photography eventually won out." Arguably one of his most intense series, Desert Realty is an emotional jumble of forsaken theaters and shacks, a theatrical look at derelict Southern California properties stripped of their neighboring buildings, straggling pedestrians, and parked cars to excavate the personalities—the sadness, the humor, the nostalgia—intrinsic to the buildings themselves.

The photos are purposefully artificial, isolated droplets of architecture transposed onto their surreal backgrounds. Freeman takes pride in how each building looks like "an architectural model of itself." The idea is that structures like these get lost unless they're taken into a false emptiness.

"How many KFCs have you seen? How many freeway overpasses have you seen? You just get barraged with all these visual pieces every second. You see the building, but you see a thousand other things at the same time," he says over the phone. "The minute there's a human in the picture, you look at the human. The minute there's any action in the picture, you look at the action. But I wanted you to look at the building."

The series began in the early 2000s—and by total accident. Freeman went out to the desert to take photos of landscapes, heading out at dawn and dusk to capture the scenes in half-light. In between was the whole day, when, in his words "landscapes, especially desert landscapes, are extremely boring." Not knowing what else to do, he explored the small towns surrounding both Southern California's Palm Springs and Death Valley. "I noted the buildings looked pretty good, so I started photographing them. Then I started falling in love with them."

Over the past decade, many of these buildings have been demolished, so in a way, Freeman is working as an archivist for the forgotten pockets of the country (Southern Ohio is next on his list) populated by little else but forgotten roadside diners, "darn-right interesting" houses, and "hard scrap kind of land."

The whole point of the series is that there's something enchanting about even the most overlooked structures. What began with a fascination with fast food restaurants has blossomed into a full-fledge admiration of the mundane: "Sometimes you just see a suburban track house that is just so perfect. You have to photograph it."

↑ Freeman spotted this striped trailer in "one of [his] favorite towns," Desert Shores. Years ago developers had in their minds that they would build a resort town on the Salton Sea, a lake in California's Coachella Valley. After paving roads like "Ocean Vista Parkway" and building boathouses and motels, someone found out the "sea" was irrevocably polluted. "If you swam in there you'd just dissolve," Freeman explains. In this abandoned resort city, children were playing outside of this rainbow shack, and, as Freeman describes, "it seemed to be the happiest trailer in the world."

Freeman didn't have his large-format camera with him at the time, but he snapped a smaller photo and promised to come back. When he did, the trailer was abandoned, the children gone. "It was so sad." He took a photo anyway, but when he took to Photoshop, Freeman found he couldn't replicate the buoyancy of that first image. "I tried to fix it up, but the trailer wasn't happy anymore. There wasn't anything I could do." The resulting photo captures the former happiness. It's also the cover image of his Desert Realty book.

↑ Spotted on Route 66, Do Drop Inn was the only structure for miles.

↑ Though he describes Trona, Calif., as "not the most picturesque town in the world," Freeman has taken several photos there, including one of this colorless shed. Plus, "I've met some wonderful people in Trona. They're always amazed that someone comes to their town."

↑ This house on the outskirts of Trona was originally a temporary house built during World War II. It's since been souped up with wood siding. "Out in the desert, building codes are very relaxed and you tend to get some very individualistic people," he says. "So you get some, uh, darn-right interesting houses."

↑ Here's a dilapidated seafoam house in Trona, which also happens to be "one of the few towns [he's] been in that you can smell before you see it." That would be because of the town's huge chemical plant.

↑ "This is a real place," he says. In Mojave, Calif., "you can get your hair cut, your oil changed, and get saved all in the same place."

↑ The Desert Inn is just over the California border into Nevada, just outside of Death Valley.

↑ This house sits in Nyland, Calif., "a town that, believe me, you have no reason to go to."

↑ Brawley Theater is on the southern end of the Salton Sea, in a "surprisingly good-looking town for the middle of nowhere."

· Desert Realty [official site]
· Ed Freeman's Photography [official site]
· All Photography posts [Curbed National]
· All Abandonment Issues posts [Curbed National]