The empty rooms in David Wells’ photographs are filled with ghosts.
These are not ghosts you can see but that are suggested by the sometimes messy, sometimes empty rooms in these photographs of homes that have been foreclosed in Massachusetts, California and several other states. They emerge, too, in the stories invented to describe them.
“Foreclosed Dreams” is on exhibit at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly.
“I started in April of 2009 at the height of the recession,” said Wells, who lives in Providence, R.I. “I started out working primarily on the West Coast and in the Northeast, but only recently got into Massachusetts and Maine. Four of the new photos are from Massachusetts and Maine.”
The ghosts in “Foreclosed Dreams” appeared in the moments after the rooms were vacated and before they had been cleaned out.
“That narrow time frame is when I want to be there,” Wells said. “The people who let me in are Realtors who handle (the houses), contractors who clean them up or the investors who buy them.”
Some people left messy mixtures of clothes, books and appliances, perhaps in haste or in anger or because they had run out of room in whatever they were using to carry things away.
Others left nearly spotless interiors, with only a stain on the rug or a single chair to speak of the lives they led in the space they were forced to leave.
Wells touched nothing when he got inside and shot all his pictures in natural light, to preserve their actual appearance. When light was low, he mounted his camera, an Olympus Micro Four Thirds, on a tabletop tripod, which allowed him to take long exposures.
Wells was a staff photographer for a few years at newspapers and is currently a member of Aurora Photos, an agency in Portland, Maine.
He turned to freelancing so he could pursue topics in depth, which he examines in series of photos that are either documentary or devoted to capturing the light in particular environments.
“Foreclosed Dreams” combines these approaches, Wells said, to present a contemporary social crisis through poetic means.
“I didn’t want to do people standing in front of their houses upset, because it’s a very narrow visual language,” he said. “I didn’t want people to look at that and dismiss them.”
Although he often interviewed real estate agents to find out what had happened to the people who had lost their homes, Wells felt it was important not to include them in his photographs.
Viewers tend to distance themselves from people whose circumstances seem unique, Wells said. But imagining what might have happened in a scene when all you can see is its aftermath helps us put ourselves in others’ places.
“I wanted people to look at this and think, ‘This could have been my grandma’s house,’” he said.
In one picture, a half-eaten grilled cheese sandwich is left on a plastic foam plate on a kitchen counter, along with an empty bag of chips and a can of soda. Behind it, out of focus, a dish rack with a few glasses sits next to the sink, at an angle that will allow it to drain.
In another photo, a cardboard box has been left on the floor, with a child’s stuffed toy leaning its head against one side, as if in despair. A piece of paper pokes out of the top of the box and may have been used to pack something inside, raising the question of whether these items were forgotten or abandoned.
Wells thinks that many people have moved beyond this crisis in their minds, but millions of foreclosures are still working their way through the system, leaving plenty of agony to document.
“I’ve photographed in 17 states,” he said. “I’d love to get in 30 states before I quit.”
The show has already appeared in Providence; Washington, D.C.; and Raleigh, N.C.
It was chosen by Gallery Director Leonie Bradbury in part because it complements another current exhibit at Montserrat, “Wish You Were There?” That exhibit addresses the topic of utopias and dystopias.
“Within each utopia, there’s already the dystopic present, because it’s built around a set of ideals that aren’t true for all of us,” she said. “This work, in a sense that it’s a dream — the American dream — to own your own home, we invest in it, we go in great debt over it, and it can end up being the nightmare of your life.”
Bradbury also likes the way that Wells’ work mixed factual storytelling with more evocative techniques and compositions.
“They’re obviously really sad,” she said. “There’s beauty in it, but there’s an overwhelming poetic sadness to this series.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Foreclosed Dreams,” photographs by David Wells
When: through Dec. 21. Open Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Where: Carol Schlosberg Alumni Gallery, Montserrat College of Art, 23 Essex St., Beverly
More information: www.montserrat.edu or 800-836-0487