I met KayLynn Deveney about a decade ago and immediately liked her; she is smart and unpretentious, which is also a good way to describe her work. She is focused, driven, and not overly concerned with how her work will be received, only that it meets her own high standards.
KayLynn lives in Northern Ireland but we try to get together when she is back in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she grew up. On one of those get-togethers, she told me about her new project photographing storybook-style ranch homes. Coincidentally, I had recently spent a staycation in Albuquerque with my family, and while running one morning, got pleasantly lost in the grid of the city and found myself amid the oddest homes with decorative gingerbread gables sloped to within inches of the ground. Having grown up in Vermont, everything about Albuquirky (as the locals sometimes call it) seems a bit mystifying, so I just chuckled and plodded on. When KayLynn saw these houses for the first time, she did not dismiss their peculiarity. Instead, she recognized that the style represented something about history and psychology, and decided to learn more.
On the day we got together, KayLynn drove me through a concentration of storybook-style homes. It was midday and the bright sun made everything look bleak but KayLynn talked energetically about what she had learned and the photographs she was making. Seeing the houses through her lens transformed my view into something strangely wonderful.
Now that KayLynn has completed this project , I spoke with her more about the work and the process of making it into the book All You Can Lose is Your Heart.
MB: In your introduction, you thank all the people who said yes to a stranger at the door. How did you summarize what you were doing when people opened the door?
KLD: When a stranger rings my doorbell, I am extremely reluctant to answer—not because I am afraid, but because I don’t want to buy the alarm system or satellite TV (they may be selling). I had to convey to people quickly that I wanted their permission to photograph their house and nothing more. I often started with, “I’m wondering if I can have your permission to photograph your house.” They usually continued to listen after that and I began to explain the project I was working on and the fact that I intended to publish and exhibit my work. Almost everyone agreed and many people thanked me for asking permission first. I had some great conversations at people’s doors.
MB: You write that the homes are a portrait of the people who live there. You’re a native of Albuquerque, where most of the pictures were taken. What aspects of the homes might people miss if they are unfamiliar with Albuquerque or New Mexico?
KLD: The houses seemed out of context in Albuquerque. In a desert city defined by tumbleweeds and arid soil, the snow-shedding peaks of the chalet style seemed so out of place. I thought the polite architecture reflected the desire to bring a model from somewhere more bucolic, more fairytale-like, to our high-mountain desert. I’m not sure people from places other than New Mexico, Arizona, or Nevada would fully pick up on that incongruity. I also found the attempt to build storybook-style homes, in hopes of encouraging a storybook life, sweet and optimistic.
Roadrunners and Zia symbols are specifically New Mexican touches and the gravel or dirt front yards are indicators of the punishing heat of Southwestern climes, but many of the details in the photographs are more broadly American. I think that most Americans will recognize the significance of the raised, acid-green truck parked on the lawn right under the windows or the gingerbread-man fence. Radio Flyer wagons, jack-o’-lanterns, inflatable pools, carefully planted window boxes, and glowing windows through which you can just glimpse the magnet collection on the refrigerator are common signs and signifiers for most people living in the Western world now.
MB: Do you identify with the people who originally bought the homes or the people who live there now?
KLD: The original owners were of a different generation and experience, and I don’t really have a feeling for their perspective. They bought their homes during a booming period in the housing industry and a time of real optimism.
I identify more closely with the people living in the storybook homes in Albuquerque today. I am an Albuquerque native. I eat New Mexican food and have the requisite chile addiction, and I own a modest house in Albuquerque—built around 1960—with my husband, Will. When I think of home, I think of low-slung ranch houses, Bermuda grass, and the smell of the evaporative cooler. I think of the neighborhood strip mall and the pink glow on the mountain at sunset, visible through the sliding glass door. I identify in those ways. Those things all signal home to me.
MB: When you were making these pictures did you think about the idea of aspirational living?
KLD: I thought about the value of living your life at home with intentionality. I think it’s important to know who you are and to define your domestic space in a way that encourages you to become who you want to be. Words like “aspiration” and “happiness” can be tricky. “Growth” and “contentment” and “thriving” are more my speed. Contentment at home must mean something different for each one of us. Creating the best context in which to thrive seems like a good aim. There are inherited patterns for domestic living and I think we should routinely question those patterns’ efficacy for ourselves.
MB: What the houses represented initially is different from how we perceive them now. Our view of the “wife-planned home” has changed, and the recession and housing crisis of 2008 made people question the idea of homeownership as a path to security and happiness. Could you share your thoughts on this?
KLD: The houses initially provided a model for domestic life that probably felt right for a lot of people following World War II and the Korean War. The predictability of the shared model or dream of home were comforting for people who had seen war and were living with the threat of the Cold War. I think our contemporary experience is different—we desire and need different things now. The housing crisis of 2008 made owning a home impossible for many Americans, and many of us had to adapt and create home as an experience in a rented property rather than a permanent experience in an owned property. Also, many people now need space to work at home, not just bedrooms for kids. There is not one family model any longer. We have a lot of different needs and configurations of “family” and I believe the variations in the homes’ exteriors reflect this. In some houses you see reflections of permanence and others you sense temporariness. In some you see the reflection of children, in others just a single occupant—one car, one aesthetic, etc. Rather than a cookie-cutter style, you see diversity of experience.
MB: Did you start the project thinking of it as a book?
KLD: Most of the time I imagine the final form of my work as a book. I think it’s because I love stories. I love to hear or read stories and I love to tell stories. My career started in photojournalism and this love of storytelling has always been the major drive in my work. I certainly believe that you can tell a story on the wall of an exhibition or in a film or even in a single photograph, but the mode I love the best is the photographic book. There is a quote by Gerry Badger in his book, The Pleasures of Good Photographs, that rings true for me. He writes, “For it is in the photobook, in my opinion, where photography sings its loudest, most complex, and satisfying song.”
MB: Why did you decide not to photograph inside the homes?
KLD: It was more difficult to see the original design inside the house. From the outside you could recognize both the formula of the design and the diversity of the occupants. Inside, the connections from one house to another were more difficult to see. You could see the passage of time outside the house, but less inside. The stories inside also became very individual and less collective. I was interested in the phenomenon of the houses and what they meant to a large group of people.
MB: How did the book evolve as you created it?
KLD: The main evolution of the work was its growth in scope. It started out as a piece of work about the Bellamah houses in Albuquerque. But as I learned about homes of the same style in other parts of the country, the geographic scope of the project grew. I made two trips to photograph homes in Nevada and then, when I found builder Jean Vandruff’s biography online, I made two visits to Southern California. Finally, I located a neighborhood in Del City, Oklahoma that I believed had become the first storybook neighborhood listed for historic preservation. Since the book has been published, I have heard from people in other parts of the country. It’s great to continue to get reports of storybook homes throughout the U.S. I would love to start collecting old family snapshots from people’s storybook homes and putting them up on my website where the work is featured.
MB: How involved were you in the sequence and layout of the book?
KLD: I edited, sequenced, and laid out the book. I also did that with my first book, The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings. I have been lucky in both cases to work with publishers who were happy to take my developed books and tweak the design where needed while leaving the major elements in place. Martin Lutz at Kehrer Verlag designed the cover with my input, made the typography throughout the book stronger and better, and corrected design mistakes where he found them. He was great.
MB: What was the most enjoyable part of making this book?
KLD: I loved many things about making this book. Some of my favorite aspects of this project included getting an iced coffee and driving around looking at houses to see if I could find details that spoke to me about who the people living inside might be. I loved talking to the people who lived in the houses and hearing how they felt about the houses. I loved meeting Jean Vandruff and talking with him about his ideas and decisions. I loved making book dummies, trying out different design approaches, and choosing the materials for the final book. I loved traveling to Germany to be on press for the printing.
MB: I love the endpapers. Tell me about them.
KLD: I wanted the endpapers to look like wallpaper. The franchised Cinderella Homes plans included suggested wallpapers, and I loved the idea of the photographs of the houses being cushioned in wallpaper. I also knew I wanted bits of photographs from the project to provide the imagery for the wallpaper, but I didn’t know how to use PhotoShop to accomplish this task. So, I worked with my friend Charlotte Cobb, a professional illustrator, to make the wallpaper that existed in my mind. I went on to make a tea towel that features the same imagery. It’s an accompaniment to the book that I offer for sale on my website. Learning how to make tea towels was a blast. I would love to continue making domestic articles like these using photography.