Exploring Sprawl through Emmanuel Monzon’s Photography


Urban Sprawl Emptiness series | Emmanuel Monzon

While sprawl can mean many things, depending on its context, sprawl typically refers to the dispersion of community. It can be thought of as the need or desire for urban physical expansion. Think suburbs emanating from the cities. As Jane Jacobs describes it, sprawl in all of its manifestations relies on inefficiency and dispersion to the periphery. Photographer Emmanuel Monzon demonstrates that sprawl is more complex than as frequently defined. 

Emmanuel Monzon seeks to capture “the in-between state found in the American landscape… places of transition, borders, passages from one world to another.” Monzon does not seek to make judgements about his subject matter; he lets the photos speak for themselves. Through his work, Monzon tries to highlight the nuances of the mundane aesthetic that appear in sprawl. He explains the  process and premise of his work, “Where most people only pass through, I stop and look for some form of poetic beauty. I like repetition, I like series, and I like driving around.” Revealing the duality of his work and process—a complexity that stems from simplicity—Monzon features man-made structures devoid of people, creating a sense of idleness and isolation. The structures in his work reflect the needs of the people that built them, but also capture how  suburbanization and urban sprawl  affect our landscapes. Car culture and the reliance on vehicles as the main mode of transportation in the U.S. have ultimately created an inorganic landscape that caters to the car. 

In his urban sprawl series, Monzon questions what edges mean and how they change and expand. His photos consider how edges or urban boundaries have stretched to accommodate sprawl and also reveal the spaces beyond the edges of our urban environment.  Monzon photographs the transitional zones within the landscape and asks, “am I leaving a city or entering a new environment?”

Urban Sprawl Emptiness series | Emmanuel Monzon

Over the last several decades, Las Vegas has come to symbolize urban sprawl. It is a city born from the inhospitality of the desert–a city of decadence and debauchery where the scarce resources of the region are consumed without discretion. According to Rachel Christiansen, Las Vegas is made up of gated communities and monumental development, with urban sprawl surrounding the tourist center of the strip. Because of this, driving is a necessity, yet the city’s structure makes it nearly impossible to do so. As Christiansen states, “people aren’t able to build social capital or build pride amongst themselves for living within a community.”

Despite the fantastical appeal of the Las Vegas wonderland, the bulk of the city is made up of poorly constructed houses without many distinguishing features. However, the mindset that led to the construction of the strip also contributed to this rapid development. The myth of Las Vegas is to ignore restraint and control, which also allowed the city to expand haphazardly.

Urban Sprawl Emptiness series | Emmanuel Monzon

We tend to think of rural America as having problems that are distinct from urban centers, but as urban sprawl bleeds into rurality, that is not necessarily the case. Rural America suffers from a series of structural problems ranging from systematic marginalization to exclusion from social and economic centers of power to environmental decimation. While the region appears to be inhabited by white conservatives, broad generalization erases the history of the Indigenous, Black, and Immigrant communities that have continued to live in these regions for centuries “in direct defiance of violent white supremacy.

While urban and suburban sprawl gain the most attention, rural sprawl is also a pressing problem lacking easy definitions or solutions. Physically, it can be defined as  “low density developments that destroy open space, farmland, or forests, with characteristics such as single housing units and out buildings on large lot sizes (usually between one and five acres).”

Urban Sprawl Emptiness series | Emmanuel Monzon

A component of the American Dream is a staunch individualism that equates land ownership with the ultimate reward: freedom. According to scholar Nate Engle, rural sprawl is a result of conservative America’s near-fetishization of rural and remote spaces coupled with a rejection of the more liberal cultural norms that emerged in the 1960s. This ideology evolved, he claims, from Thomas Jefferson’s emphasis on rural self-sufficiency. However, the critique goes that rural sprawl is no longer primarily representative of pastoral life and has instead been replaced by a long commute and endless resource consumption. This has de-ruralized country spaces, all in the name of individualism. 

While Engle’s theory may delve into the origins of sprawl, it fails to consider more nuanced factors. As cities grow more expensive and labor becomes increasingly scarce, sprawl is an inevitable byproduct of these constraints. Maybe participation in sprawl is less an individual pursuit for freedom and more a response to the economic exclusion cities are coming to embody. In the countryside, in the mountains, or in sprawling desert regions, people still have the perception that they control their destiny. Rural sprawl may be less a rejection of “city” culture than exclusion from it. 

Monzon’s photos, like the spaces he captures, elude easy definition. He reveals the emptiness, isolation, and devoid elements on the edges of transitional zones and urban boundaries. His images give credit to complexity. Never relying on easy stereotypes, he neither fetishizes nor villainizes a place. 

Jennifer Hendricks is a former graduate student in the Urban Policy and Leadership program. Her work focuses on comparative urban policy, with a specific interest in regional understandings of community development and public space. She can be found at https://www.jennhendricks.com/

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