I spent the past weekend on assignment photographing rummage and estate sales for a fluffy, glossy magazine. Simple enough, right? Walking around, snapping photos of people's letter-deficient Scrabble boxes and adolescent bed sheets? Not so. At the sight of my camera, I was followed, glared at, and from one Gresham house, ejected. In this era of nannycams, domestic surveillance policies, and reality television, people simply do not trust cameras. Even children respond to the sight of a camera with, "What are you taking my picture for?"
It's a wonder then that Richard Ross was allowed access to the subterranean worlds he recorded in Waiting for the End of the World, his photographic series of post-apocalyptic, underground shelters. If a normal Joe selling his old coffee cups is paranoid and mistrustful in the face of a lens, imagine the Texan who has stocked his hand-built bunker with canned peaches in anticipation of the rapture.
In his most successful images, Ross captures a mindset, lifestyle, and personality of doomsday architects—distrustful citizens who respond to their fears by burrowing. From Utah to China, Ross creates deadpan, "just the facts ma'am" interior portraits of these netherworld chambers. Some are depressingly bleak; others are outright homey. Some sport shag carpets, National Geographics, and spice racks; others resemble vaguely sadistic torture chambers.
That's only in the successful photographs, though. It seems that at the mouth of entry to many of the shelters, Ross ran up against the limits of his subject's openness. Nearly one half of Waiting for the End of the World is comprised of tunnel shots—winding tubular hallways that lead to the more interesting inner sanctums. The tunnels themselves hold no inherent interest; the external knowledge of their raison d'être is their only selling point. It's not all Ross's fault—undoubtedly many of the doomsayers got cold feet at the sight of a hulking large-format camera. But this is what's called "not getting the shot," what's known in basketball as a "brick." You get right up to the hoop, kiss the rim, and fail to make the basket. However admirable the attempt might be, it's nothing to put on your highlight reel.