March 23, 2009

Traces of Everyday Life on Desolation Row


by contributor Robert Hariman

These photographs were placed on a Facebook page to provide continued documentation of the closing of the Rocky Mountain News. The photos were taken on March 19, several weeks after the paper went out of business. This picture could be from more than one corporate office today.

You are looking at the hardware of the white collar workplace: computer, phone, other electronic paraphernalia, ergonomic chair, files, wastebasket, paper littering every surface. . . . . Welcome to my world. On the good days, a place like this is humming with energy, activity, and deadlines, and, of course, arguments, delays, and frustrations, but also coffee breaks, conversations, and jokes. Places like this becoming living communities where people spend a lot of their time, give a lot of their talents, and find an important source of meaning, identity, and self-respect.

In the days of The Organization Man, the office was thought to be the source of Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row. When you look at the shabby, barren, modernist decor, the label seems to apply again. But times had changed and now work looks pretty good, and the desolation comes not from the work but from business shutting down. When only the hardware is left, there’s nothing there.

Nothing there, except for a few traces of personality.

I love the way that people decorate their desks and cubicles to remake the impersonal space into something richer. Usually you see signs of those other important sources of personal meaning, family and friends, and you learn something about the individual. The gaping, empty shelves in this cubicle shout out the fact that the work has been taken away, yet the little dog, the trinkets stuck on the bulletin board, the book, photograph, ball cap, and even the box of tissues remind us that a real person worked here.

The unemployment statistic was created in an instant, and someone will have taken a few hours to box up some things and then walked away from the rest, but the signs of a past life linger on.


Material signs of a missing spirit–could this figurine be any more apt?

She was someone’s small homage to the imagination–a fairy the same color as the impersonal office decor and yet evocative of another world. She sits precariously on the cubicle divider in front of a stack of papers, a symbol of vulnerability and crash that reveals just now fragile newspapers are today. And not only newspapers.

Though obviously an inexpensive bit of kitsch, it’s sad that the figurine was abandoned along with the old editions awaiting recycling. But perhaps it wasn’t abandoned, and left instead as a good luck charm. A promise that spirit and creativity can return to desolation row.

Cross-posted from No Caption Needed.

The photographs were taken by Dean Krakel and put up at his Facebook page as “What They Left Behind”; the link was sent to me by photographer David Sutton.

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Robert Hariman
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