Book shows Eastman’s photographic genius


Michael Eastman of St. Louis has attained international recognition for his stunning photography, which is the subject of a newly published book, Vanishing America: The End of Main Street, Diners, Drive-Ins, Donut Shops and Other Everyday Monuments.

The lush book has just been released by Rizzoli of New York, the top publisher of artistic and photographic works. In conjunction with the release of the book, which contains hundreds of eye-popping photographs of the fading facades and interiors of American diners, gas stations, storefront churches and hotel lobbies, the Duane Reed Gallery in Clayton is presenting a number of Eastman’s works from that series as well as an image from his acclaimed set of photographs he took in Cuba. The exhibit at the Duane Reed Gallery, 7513 Forsyth Boulevard, where the book can also be purchased ($50, cloth), runs through June 14.

For the past 30 years, Michael Eastman has produced an eclectic array of fine art photography on diverse subjects, including horses, European architecture and various locations in present-day Cuba. Now storefronts, greasy spoons and crumbling drive-in movie theaters are depicted in the current Vanishing America book and exhibit.

Eastman, a member of the St. Louis Jewish community, has had his work shown in numerous collections, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, the International Center for Photography and the Los Angeles County Museum. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and has been published in The New York Times, Life and Time magazines and American Photographer. Last December, the Saint Louis University Museum of Art presented “Elusive Light: Michael Eastman Retrospective,” which received critical acclaim.

In a recent column by Deb Peterson in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, she reports that a photo taken by Eastman sold at Christie’s May photo auction in London for $52,600. Peterson quotes Duane Reed, who has represented Eastman since 2005 as saying the price for the work, Isabella’s Two Chairs with Laundry, was a record sale for Eastman, which Reed says, “puts him in the big league.” That photo, taken in 2000, was part of Eastman’s Cuba collection.

What makes Eastman’s work so special is his uncanny ability to photograph humble, quotidian, decaying old diners, donut shops and storefronts, and make them seem pulsating with life. The Cuba photograph on exhibit at Reed, depicts what appears to be a foyer of a building with old chairs and a chipped table and what at first appears to be a faded, unraveling carpet. Actually, the floor is made of tile, so well-worn that it tricks the eye of the viewer. Indeed, just as highly skilled painters use the technique of trompe l’oeil, which looks so real as to almost invite the viewer to touch, so does Eastman use photography to achieve a kind of hyper-realism.

Current postmodern artists like Photo Realist School Founder Richard Estes can paint a gum-ball machine in which the gum balls appear to be almost “more than real,” along with the stress marks on the machine and the glint on the glass globe.

Eastman can photograph a lonely-looking deserted street in what might be called a city slum, and imbue it with an inner light that seems to provide a kind of heartbeat of life beneath all of the decay and squalor. Jesus Donuts shows a large JESUS sign perched atop the Better Donut Drive In. The juxtaposition of the capital letters loudly proclaiming a belief in the divinity of Jesus with the humble donut shop is by turns poignant, humorous and visually compelling.

Edward Hopper, the great American realist painter whose Nighthawks depicts a humble hamburger diner which evokes nostalgia, loneliness and refuge all at the same time, was a pioneer in making the ordinary seem extraordinary on his canvases.

Michael Eastman, using his considerable photographic skills and his uncanny eye for detail, colors and contrasts, builds upon Hopper’s legacy in Vanishing America.

In its announcement of the publication of Vanishing America, Rizzoli said, “Think of the quirky buildings you pass every day but whose quiet beauty you take for granted –the moviehouses, juke joints, soda fountains, barbershops, roadside diners and storefront churches. You don’t miss them until they are gone. As suburban sprawl and strip malls conquer the country, these vestiges of a lost way of life are falling under the wrecking ball. Here the photographer Michael Eastman has made the ultimate road trip, crisscrossing the nation dozens of times, to capture those buildings on film before they vanish. These dreamy images call us to question what we choose to let go in the wake of contemporary life, with a cool melancholy…”

In his introduction to Eastman’s Vanishing America book, Douglas Brinkley, writing in Jordan, Mont., quotes poet William Carlos Williams responding to a scene similar to those evoked in Eastman’s powerful photographic images.

“Williams used to climb up the fire escape of his Paterson, N. J., hospital to survey the tenement ugliness from the roof. Discarded cans, rusted nails, damaged sheetrock — it was a Dantean vision of urban blight. But Dr. Williams said no. He rejected the horror. There was beauty in the refuse, he insisted. He pointed to the shards of broken brown and green bottles glistening in the sun. ‘These are gems,’ he said. ‘It’s a matter of your eyes looking at them right.'”

Eastman proves once again that it is indeed “a matter of your eyes looking at them right.” Instead of depressing detritus of decaying facades, we get brilliant hues of vivid if crumbling paint, the shiny chrome of diner stools and the warm, inviting look of humble eating, drinking and other establishments that Hemingway in a story once described as “A Clean and Well-Lighted Place.”

Thanks to Michael Eastman, these striking, evocative images of a fading landscape of America have been captured forever, retaining not only their shopworn qualities, but bursting with an inner life that Eastman seems uniquely qualified not only to see through his lens, but to empower the viewers of his work to see in his prints.

(Michael Eastman: Vanishing America runs through June 14 at the Duane Reed Gallery, 7513 Forsyth Boulevard in Clayton. For information, call 314-862-8557, or visit the Web site at