2021 Report on the State of Living in Suburbia by Lois Wu

2021 Report on the State of Living in Suburbia. That’s what I named my final project in VIS 213: Digital Photography. During a semester when the Princeton University Art Museum was closed and we couldn’t travel outside of Princeton to visit other museums or galleries, viewing and discussing my classmates’ photographs during our Wednesday Zoom classes felt like my one tenuous connection to art. Whether my classmates were living on campus in Princeton, or across the country (one person Zoomed in from Hawaii with a six hour time difference), everyone came up with really amazing, creative projects. We had people focusing on masked portraiture, documenting what rock climbing was to them, and practicing an institutional critique on Princeton University. It was inspiring to see the art people made, despite our need to be distanced from others.  

As I wrote in my artist statement, my project was “a contemplation on the oddities of suburban life I’ve observed in the past three months [on campus]. Though Princeton, New Jersey appears rather uniform at first glance, with its large front lawns and tree-lined streets, not all is as drab as it seems. An eerily empty storefront stands in the middle of town, filled with female mannequins, evidence of an Ann Taylor store of the past. A strange metal container sits on the edge of a golf course, surrounded by wooden storage containers and Princeton University’s gothic Cleveland Tower in the back. A demo toilet and other household remnants sit in an open garage for all to see.”

I grew up in New York City and I had never truly lived in the suburbs before this semester. During my first semester and a half on campus last year, I never wandered much around town. As I wandered around this semester, on assignment for my VIS class, I became fascinated with the quirks I noticed in suburban life. I went on to document these quirks for both my midterm and final projects. My weekly photo walks, often lasting two to three hours at a time, became a nice reprieve from campus and a chance to decompress, listen to music, and enjoy my own company (#selfcare). 

The six photos I’ve chosen to include are only a snippet of the fifteen I submitted for this project, but two general motifs in my work are trees and cars, both of which influence how one experiences space in suburbia. The branches of trees often shroud buildings and other structures in the neighborhood, providing that sought-after suburban sense of privacy. The height of many of the taller trees also stands in contrast to the flat landscape of suburban two-story homes, emphasizing the lack of tall structures in Princeton. Cars, on the other hand, exacerbate the flatness. They first provide a much-needed mode of transportation in such a spread-out landscape, then the necessary garages and parking lots that dot the neighborhood also add to the spread-out nature of the area, taking up more land next to people’s homes. I was often drawn to photographing these parking lots. Four of them sit within a mile and a half of one another in Princeton and as I stood on the upper levels of the parking structures, I often felt an eerie, flat silence as I looked out over the town.

I hope this series communicates a bit of what it’s been like for me in the suburbs—what’s caught my eye as an outsider—and also evokes the same strange wonder at suburban oddities in you as it does in me.