Enigmatic Landscapes: Parking Garages in the Photography of Carsten Meier

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Born in Germany, photographer Carsten Meier received an MFA degree from the School of Fine Arts at Ohio University and is now assistant professor at the University of Miami in Florida. His work, which ranges from lush nature scenes to images of construction sites, has been exhibited in both Germany and the United States. His often haunting photographs of parking garages—including Columbus, Ohio (2002), which appeared in the National Building Museum exhibition House of Cars—are marked by a curious absence of people, and an even more curious absence of cars. In this interview, Meier discussed his use of parking garages as a means of depicting the “ambivalent relationship” between humans and their environment.

National Building Museum (NBM) Online: How did you develop an interest in photographing parking lots and parking garages?

Carsten Meier: I was looking for locations that were overlooked, and the architecture of parking lots is most often a reflection of purpose and not of design. Though the idea came to me while I was still living in Europe, when I came to the US to study, I repeatedly found myself in these so-called non-places as I traveled in the East Coast and the Midwest.

NBM Online: In all of your photographs of lots and garages, I think only one car—a van, actually—is visible. Nor are people visible. Do you equate parking with desolation?

Meier: Yes, in the sense that the parking garage is, of course, often a desolate place. However, this is because it is not a space that is meant for us. The parking garage is meant to house our cars, so its purpose remains utilitarian. It is not a place to linger; it’s a place we take for granted. My choice to exclude cars was designed to remove as many distractions as possible, so that the interchangeable nature of these locations was clear. My photographic impulses require a lot of neutralization regarding perspective, light, etc. The van was truly an exception that remains as an indicator for a specific time period. At the same time the black van is probably one of the most unobtrusive cars these days.

NBM Online: Some of your photographs suggest an interest in the inherent geometries of parking lots and garages—the lined spaces, the ramps, the slender lampposts—while others convey a more emotional response to these places. Is that discrepancy deliberate? How does it reflect your visceral experience of such structures?

Meier: When I take pictures, I try to convey all banalities equally for the sake of the composition and that, in and of itself, is an emotional response to the complete subject. This emotional response is, in fact, always a catalyst for understanding the place and thus my impetus for releasing the shutter. Admittedly the emotion that prompts me to take a photograph may be entirely different from the response of someone viewing the image afterward. However, in as much as it is possible to create a connection between the photographer and viewer, I believe these compositions resonate in everyone, because they are made up of modular architectural elements that could and do exist everywhere.

NBM Online: You seem to have a particular interest in the topmost, open levels of parking garages. This is unusual—in movies, for instance, action involving parking garages typically takes place in levels that are underground or covered. What do your rooftop parking garage images reveal about our cities?

Meier: This is somewhat funny, because after I finished the first series, titled Elevation, I saw the movie Fargo for the first time, in which the top of a parking garage sets the scene for a virtual dark hour in history. Then I was in Cincinnati; I remember that I had just parked my car on the upmost level of a parking garage. Behind the railing, the top of the city hall dominated the skyline. I was suddenly struck by the clash of two opposites: the banality of the top-level parking lot and the historic specificity of the city hall. This experience inspired me to continue work on this series.

NBM Online: In addition to parking garages, you have photographed construction sites, but you have also created photographic series involving nature scenes and groups of people. Are there any consistent threads in these diverse works?

Meier: I am a ceaseless experimenter. I use the medium of photography to generate images that have the potential to broaden our understanding of a particular subject, and I think many others share this artistic impulse. The consistent thread that interests me most is humans’ relationship to nature. [My photographic series] Public Parking and Baustellen both focus on the search for acceptable urban densification. Simultaneously, the almost complete diminishing of nature in these works shows our desolation. Thus the images of parking lots also underscore the ambivalent relationship between humans and nature. Although this sentiment is perhaps more literal in other series, I think all of my work is somehow a reflection of this ambivalence.