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Wandering And Photographing America's Rust Belt: Laundromats

Posted: 09/28/11 03:53 PM ET

As a photographer, laundromats have always been an object of fascination for me. Many have the look of worn time machines, definitely attached to a bygone era but beaten down by the passing years.

The first thing I usually look for are the utilitarian yet almost modern art-like laundromat chairs. These chairs only add to the atomic-age-in-a-bubble vibe that the best old Rust Belt laundromats give off. In many of the places I wander into, the newest washing machines and dryers seem to date back to the '70s, when the prevalent colors of such appliances were various shades of avocado.

Aside from those machines, many of these older laundromats are still using amenities from another commercial era. It's never surprising to find an old-style Pepsi machine -- more so than Coke, for some reason -- or a Nehi wall clock. Of course, all of that only adds to already potent atmosphere.

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These older laundromats, like so many other commercial enterprises from that era, are rapidly disappearing. With that in mind, whenever I pull into a new place to photograph, I always seek them out. Pittsburgh and its surrounding areas have probably been the most fertile for documenting these places but, sadly, I was in Detroit a few months ago, and I was disappointed that so many there already seemed gone.

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Aside from the aesthetic perks already mentioned, what really draws me to these places are the feelings of transience and loneliness that nearly always seem to exist within these establishments. I tend to feel that those characteristics are so strong in most laundromats, that they can be effectively conveyed at any hour of the day. I've photographed laundromats during the dark, late hours, as well as the early, light ones, and while those night shots have some atmospheric advantage, I've taken some pretty lonely looking day timers, too.

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Soundtrack

Selections from recent travels:

Stevie Wonder - Living For The City, the full LP version with the killer spoken middle section
The Faces - Bad 'N' Ruin
Nina Simone - Here Comes The Sun
The Buff Medways - Unable To See The Good
Dan Penn - If Love Was Money

To see more of my laundromat photography, as well as other Rust Belt subjects, please visit the Randy Fox Photography site. I also created and administer the American Elegy site, which features the work and words of some of the most talented photographers out there.