The Burning House: What People Would Take if the House Was on Fire
A pictorial meditation on how we construct our identity through objects and material possessions.
By Maria Popova
If your house suddenly caught on fire, what would you grab as you fled out the door? That’s precisely the question Foster Huntington asked himself, so he gathered the belongings he himself would take and photographed them, then asked a few friends to do the same. Then, on May 10 of 2011, he launched The Burning House with 10 such photographs. Within a few hours, he got his first submission from a complete stranger. Within a few days, he was making headlines. But he soon realized the self-selection implicit to the project engendered a certain psychographic homogeneity in the responses he was receiving and, driven to make people of various walks of life feel included, he decided to seek out more diverse submissions himself.
So, for five months, he drove thousands of miles up and down the West Coast and around the Rockies, in search for people “other than typical blog readers,” in an effort to expand the project generationally, geographically, and socioeconomically. Using Richard Avedon’s In the American West as inspiration, he set out to find those rare specimens who “had never heard of Tumblr, had never seen an iPad” — in other words, the kinds of people with whom he would’ve never crossed paths had he stayed in Manhattan. The results — rich, surprising, refreshingly human, from people separated by 80 years and spanning six continents — are now gathered in The Burning House: What Would You Take? (public library), based on the Tumblr of the same name and a fine addition to this running list of blog-turned-book success stories.
Huntington writes in the introduction:
Today, developed countries are consuming more than ever before. This culture of consumption is often fueled by people’s desire to define themselves by the possessions they amass. The Burning House: What Would You Take? takes a different approach to personal definition. By removing easily replaceable objects and instead focusing on things unique to them, people are able to capture their personalities in a photograph.
What emerges is part Material World, part Things, part wholly singular lens on the human condition, bridging the practical and the sentimental in a way that bespeaks our constant see-saw between rationality and intuition.
And in case you were wondering, here’s what I would take:
- Wallet (recycled newspaper and plastic bag, from HOLSTEE)
- 1935 edition of Ulysses with sketches by Henri Matisse and 22-karat gold accents (Sure, the hefty tome would weigh me down — but I decided against the replaceable iPad and pair of giant Canon cameras in its favor.)
- MacBook Air
- Phrenology bike helmet hand-painted by artist Danielle Baskin
- Makerbot-printed space invader, a gift from a dear friend
- Two-finger yellow LEGO ring from C+
- 1993 edition of Gertrude Stein’s 1938 children’s book, The World Is Round
- Owl necklace from the 1950s, found in a middle-of-nowhere California vintage shop en route back from TED
- 1 TB external hard drive with all my personal data, 15 years of photos, 100GB of music, and just about every piece of digital content I’ve ever owned (Western Digital My Passport Essential SE 1 TB USB 3.0/2.0, for the record)
- Original drawing of Paula Scher, one of my big design heroes, by my friend and illustrator extraordinaire Wendy MacNaughton. It reads: “Impossible happens.”
- My Vibrams
You can submit your own on the project site.
Published July 19, 2012