Decolonizing the Colonel: The Afterlives of KFCs

Critics of the strip-malling of America often describe the country’s franchise-saturated landscape as a monoculture: bland, dangerously homogenous, and quite possibly doomed. But even the life of the most anonymous franchise building can take an unexpected turn.

The Chilean-born, New York-based photographer Camilo José Vergara has spent much of his career documenting the rise and decline of buildings in poor urban areas. He became interested in the lowly edifices of fast-food culture after hearing about a Chicago businessman convicted of tax evasion who had lost 25 Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises at once. What would happen to the jilted buildings? “Any fast-food company is extremely careful in presenting its public face,” Vergara notes. “They hire the most expensive designers to create a presence that makes you want to stop in your tracks. When bad times hit, the reverse process starts, and the markers that made the place immediately identifiable as a KFC or Pizza Hut are the first things to be removed, so you just drive by. There’s a formula to it.”

The first KFC whose afterlife he documented was included in his 2005 survey of storefront churches, How the Other Half Worships. It had been reincarnated as a Pentecostal church in Newark, New Jersey, its facade resurfaced in brick and its trademark turret turned into a steeple. “The minister said more people came to praise God than came to buy chicken,” Vergara recalls. “The only drawback of the place was the chicken grease.” Another in Philadelphia did a stint as a headstone retailer for a cemetery across the street before becoming a Chinese take-out restaurant. Others are destined to become laundromats, H&R Blocks, and Dunkin’ Donuts franchises, while still others remain boarded-up and abandoned, their fortunes tied to the value of the land they sit on.

The pictures are deliberately neutral, taken in even light, and often from the roof of Vergara’s car to avoid distortion. The approach puts the focus on the buildings, showing the KFC as a modern form of vernacular architecture that can be widely repurposed after its days of serving up crispy chicken strips are done. As he has done with other projects, Vergara plans to continue photographing these buildings over time, eventually compiling his images into a grid that shows a range of possible outcomes.

“I’m trying to out-Becher the Bechers,” he observes, referring to the influential Düsseldorf photography duo known for their studies of industrial structures in postwar Germany. “For them, the idea was to take one picture. But I want to show as many stages as possible. My Kentucky Fried Chickens are very fidgety. They don’t stay quiet.”