Odd and Ominous Photos of Small-Town Community Centers

Photographer Eli Durst constructs an eerie fictional world out of suburban community groups.

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Aug 7 2018, 4:27am

Photographer Eli Durst's art is informed by his youth in Austin, Texas. “I was surrounded by a lot of parking lots, strip malls, and churches," he told me. "And that landscape is still present in the themes of my work."

In his most recent project, Durst traveled to various community centers and multi-purpose spaces in Connecticut, New York, and Texas that host activities such as Boy Scout troops, New Age and non-denominational spiritual groups, and community theater collectives.

“The impetus of the project was just to photograph different activities that took place in church basements, and it grew from there,” Durst explained. “I quickly realized that I wasn’t doing a documentary project. It was more about what happens when you put these different communities together and create some sort of symbolic community. I want to give the viewer the impression that all these different things can be happening simultaneously in one space.”

At first glance, Durst’s images do just that. The monochromatic tone and use of strobe in each photograph unite the images stylistically, and the awkward, ominous, and performative positioning of each subject in the frame ties the individual photographs together. The underlying theme of suburban America is also present in the series, from the subjects’ wardrobes to the architectural structure and interior design of the buildings.

“I used to shoot mostly color 4x5 pictures, and I worked mostly outdoors. But when I got to Yale for grad school, the winters were absolutely freezing,” said Durst. “I mostly shoot people, and since nobody wanted to be outside, I took my work indoors. The 4x5 needed so much light to be able to capture movement, so I switched to digital. When I did that, I brought in the artificial light so that I could use a lower ISO, and give the images a more detailed and cinematic feel.” Once Durst introduced the artificial flash to the space, he fell in love with the result. “The flash created a psychological space that I was really pleased with. However, I was also grossed out with the mixing of artificial light with ambient light. Instead, I tried shooting in black and white.”

The universe that Durst constructed out of candid subjects and found moments creates a body of work that transports the viewer to an imagined suburban wonderland.

“These images aren’t faithful documentations of these spaces, and I don’t intend for them to be,” Durst said. “It’s almost like filmmaking; constructing a fictional world, but using real-world tools to do so.

To see more of Eli's work, click here.

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