Disappearing America by David Plowden
The very nature of the title of this portfolio, Disappearing America, brings to light one of photography's greatest challenges: we can only photograph what still exists. This kind of photography – I've always thought of it as the genre "Nostalgia" — is particularly difficult because it's meant to be truthful, documentary, capturing a place and time that used to exist but can only be photographed if it still does exist. I suppose nothing would prevent one from creating this kind of image entirely from our imagination using Photoshop, but that fanciful sort of construction would go entirely against the nature of what this project is.
To make these photographs, Plowden first had to find these places, and that means exploring, looking, and hoping the subject matter can be found. It explains why so much of this genre of photography involves buildings and locations rather than people and events. We can visualize this location filled with people from the 1940s — in their hats and clothing of the day, carrying period suitcases, magazines, and lunch baskets. The people, now, can no longer be photographed because they are gone; the building however remains. It's no wonder so much of Plowden's project includes rooms and things, buildings and structures.
From a strictly compositional point of view, this photograph does a marvelous job of playing symmetry against asymmetry. In fact, if it were perfectly symmetrical, I think it would be considerably less interesting. Note the symmetry of the arch, the door, the benches, the buckets, the wainscoting. Against that, however, there is the asymmetry of the structure on the far left, the trash can on the far right, and the object in the very top of the photograph and the conduit leading to it. The play of symmetry and asymmetry is beautifully done and is such an important part of the feeling of this photograph I cannot imagine it being photographed from any other position nearly as successfully. As the old maxim advises, 90% of photography is knowing where to stand.
One other small detail catches my eye as being particularly important in this photograph. The text on the door, "Employees Only," is, if you look closely enough, hand-painted on the door. That small detail does as much to set the nostalgic timeframe of this image as anything else. Were this a modern structure and a modern sign, we would expect it to be some perfectly printed, perfectly lettered, perfectly uninteresting cookie-cutter sign. The hand-painted lettering communicates volumes — an amazing capability for such a tiny detail.
One final thought comes to mind about this image – the voluminous emptiness. This is a very tall ceiling, if the door can be the judge of height. This is a very large room, if the floor can be a judge of square footage. The illumination from outside the left side of the frame implies large windows. The very slight and subtle shadow in the lower right edge of the photograph implies an unseen object. There is not much here but we can imagine the echoes of the photographer's footsteps, the click of his shutter, the still musty volume of air that fills this room. Perhaps I've spent too many hours photographing in places just like this, but all of these sensory memories return when I look at this photograph. This, in itself, is a form of nostalgia, albeit a personal one from a fellow photographer's point of view — the shared experience of having photographed so many of these places myself.
The portfolio can be seen in its entirety in our back issues — print (while still available) and our PDFs for computer, iPad, Android, and other devices. Plus, bonus audio commentary about this image is available to members of LensWork Online.
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