It’s like the apocalypse, but smaller

Artists’ tiny models imagine what a city might look like after humans are long gone.

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Lori Nix and Kathleen Gerber spent seven months building this minute replica of a New York City subway car. Sprouting weeds and plastered with ironic posters, it sits in a desert. The city’s skyline is visible beyond.
This story appears in the April 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The city is a ruin. Trains sit motionless on their tracks. Schools are silent. Libraries and laundromats languish in decay. Everyone has vanished.

It’s the end of the world as we know it, but Lori Nix feels fine. In fact, she and Kathleen Gerber, her partner in art and life, are the cheerful architects of this apocalypse. On a gray winter day in Brooklyn, the two women are working in their chockablock apartment cum studio, carefully building small-scale dioramas of disaster.

Their goal, says Nix, is to create and photograph “open-ended narratives—models of a post-human metropolis in the future, after an unknown catastrophe.” To “unlock, engage, and provoke” viewers’ imaginations, “we want [them] to contemplate the present. Do we still have a future? Will we be able to save ourselves?”

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Nix and Gerber divide their labor. For this image of an anatomy classroom, says Nix, “I built the cabinets, the walls, the floors, and the chairs. Kathleen did all the anatomy models. She handles the difficult stuff.”
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After the apocalypse, a Chinese take-out restaurant—made from materials including foam, clay, paper, and dried plant matter—is realistically dirty and deserted. “When we show our photographs,” says Nix, “people ask, ‘Is this real?’ If they think it is, we’ve been successful. We try to make our scenes as realistic as possible. The scale or the colors may be a little off, but we’re always trying for reality.”

Nix gets most of her ideas for these intricate tableaux from riding on the subway or paging through travel photos. Other inspirations spring from her past. Growing up in Tornado Alley in the 1970s, she was affected by extreme weather—and by disaster films like The Towering Inferno and dystopian fare like Planet of the Apes.

Today she considers herself a “faux landscape photographer.” But “rather than traipse through the countryside looking for the perfect landscape, I just make it right here, on my tabletop.”

That’s where Gerber comes in. Her background in gilding, glassblowing, and faux finishing helps her build, distress, and age the sets.

“She’s the sculptor,” says Nix. “I’m the architect. I come up with the ideas and the color palettes and the camera angle. She does all the detail work—makes things come alive and shine.”

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As a child in tiny Norton, Kansas, Nix was “always around danger and disaster—bad weather, blizzards, floods, insect infestations. And of course, tornadoes.” In this shot of what may be a twister-ravaged beauty salon, Gerber’s hand enters the frame, illustrating the scale of these detailed dioramas.
See an Apocalyptic World Envisioned in Miniature

Learn how Nix and Gerber make their art come to life in this short video by filmmaking duo The Drawing Room. The documentary is part of National Geographic’s Short Film Showcase.

Their Lilliputian sets range from 20 inches to nine feet in diameter. They’re manufactured using common materials—paper and acrylic, cardboard and clay, extruded foam and plastic sheeting—and tiny power tools. It’s a painstaking process: Each scene takes seven to 15 months to build. When one is finally ready, Nix photographs it with an 8 x 10 large-format camera. A single final shot can take up to three weeks to produce.

“You wouldn’t know it from the work we do,” says Nix, “but I’m actually really optimistic. And I think our scenes—where nature is reclaiming the landscape—are weirdly hopeful.” Gerber agrees. “We’re always shooting for a mix of humor and horror,” she says. “We’re always trying to engage people—and get them to think.”

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A laundromat lies in ruins. Could an environmental disaster have caused it? “Every generation feels like it’s on the downward slope,” says Nix. “But it’s really starting to feel like we’re not going to be able to save ourselves.”
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With no humans around, nature has its way with a botanic garden. Nix says this scene took months to build—but it won’t last long. “We toss most of our old sets,” she says. “Our apartment is too small to keep them. We just hold on to parts of them—small pieces of scenes—as reminders of jobs past.” Unless “we think we can reuse them,” adds Gerber. “We have one box filled with couches and tables.”
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Daylight streams into a vacant casino through fissures in the walls and ceilings, revealing a desert landscape outside. Nix says she and Gerber agree on most aspects of their work, but “we do have aesthetic disagreements. She wants to make things nice and cute. I want death and destruction.” To resolve that, she jokes, “I have to wear her down.” Gerber smiles and adds, “And I give in.”
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Rust runs rampant in a long-abandoned control room. Nix says these works reward multiple viewings. “There are various points of entry,” she says. “You can get excited about the miniatures or the ideas. There’s something for everyone.” Gerber agrees: “Once people find out they’re models, they think, ‘Oh, these are just pretend.’ That creates a safe space where they can ponder the message.”
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Nix and Gerber use a different scale for each set. They start with one object, then build the scene around it. For this library—where moss clings to the walls and birch trees shade the books—it was the dollhouse globe.