Chris Benfey

A collaboration with James Gehrt

In August 2018, a colleague at Hampshire College invited me to contribute a short essay to a book she was co-editing. The book, she explained, was devoted to what she called “the concept of the ghostly in architecture.” She encouraged contributors to evoke “actual haunted places,” but she also invited us to range more widely in search of architectural ghosts. “Whether it be the flicker of spatial remembrance like a passing sense of cold, the palimpsest of a former window on a solid brick wall, or a crumbling foundation overgrown in the woods—spirits, souls, traces, and the spaces in between abound in our experience of, and critical approaches to, architecture and its histories.” The project editors wanted 800 words and two images from each contributor.

I knew immediately what I wanted to write about and I knew immediately who I wanted to provide the two images. I wanted to write about ghost driveways and I wanted James Gehrt to take the photographs. The notion of ghost driveways was my own. On my walks with our dog in our former farming neighborhood, I noticed that many houses had once had driveways that for one reason or another had been abandoned, leaving traces of their former existence. Our neighborhood has faced many changes over the years, from farming to industry (a couple of large-scale brick factories have vanished into the landscape over the years) to suburbia. I also had a strong sense that driveways themselves had undergone a change since my own childhood. They no longer, at least not in our neighborhood, seemed to be the locus of the traditional dad’s world: the grill, the basketball hoop, the hose for washing the car. Driveways used to be a distinctive place, a site of familiar—often mainly masculine—family rituals. Now they’re just driveways, where the car is parked, where the snow shovel awaits the next snow.

I’ve always associated James Gehrt’s photographs with a sense of this ghostly passage of time. In his black and white (and gray) photographs, we sense the shifting light through the day and the shifting light through larger blocks of time. He’s an artist of the weathered world, the ways in which time “develops” everything it touches. I’m thinking of haunting images like Behind Main Street (2014) and Cell Block Six (2013), or the various images of well-used tools from Peterson’s Shop. You could call Gehrt’s sensibility gothic. I think of it, instead, as intensely time-conscious, an awareness of what time does to the things around us—and, in turn, to us.   

James Gehrt was immediately “in” with the ghost driveways. I knew he would take the project in his own direction, not illustrating my text but providing a visual counterpoint for it. That’s exactly what he did. His ghost driveways are subtle, easy to miss. We have to linger with the photograph until, after a while, the missing driveway dawns on us. That’s my experience with all of James Gehrt’s photographs. Give them time. Give them space. And they’ll dawn on you.