An image comes to mind at the mention of the High Plains: an empty but picturesque farmhouse, roof sagging like the back of an old horse, porch falling off the foundation, and screen door swaying in the wind. There’s a wide, exposing sky, and an old windmill tilting toward the West.

But what happens when you scratch beneath the surface? What’s inside the boarded-up buildings and houses that dot the plains from New Mexico to North Dakota? When were they abandoned, and by whom? What did people leave behind, and why?

In his new book, Gone: Photographs of Abandonment on the High Plains, New Mexico photographer Steve Fitch tries to answer those questions. For 10 years, Fitch traveled the hardscrabble High Plains, with his large-format camera, taking photographs inside abandoned houses and public buildings. Inside, he found shag carpeting, color televisions, tri-color mattresses, and spaceship wallpaper. These artifacts of the not-so-distant past betray the fact that many of these boarded-up homes and public buildings were abandoned, not 80 or 150 years ago, but less than 20.

By placing the abandonment of homes, schools and churches within our lifetime, Fitch exposes something the nation has ignored: Decay, poverty and loss are not things of the past. According to the most recent census, depopulation in these rural communities is accelerating: The region has become one of the poorest in the country, and towns and counties can no longer support public institutions such as hospitals and schools.

Fitch’s book is a portrait of the heartbreak that continues to confront communities across a huge swath of middle America, and a reminder that hard times on the High Plains are not just a romantic image from a distant past.

Gone: Photographs of Abandonment on the High Plains
by Steve Fitch
175 pages, paperback $24.95.
University of New Mexico Press, 2003