David Plowden: Vanishing Point: Fifty Years of Photography
By David Plowden, forward by Richard Snow, introduction by Steve Edwards. W. W. Norton & Company, 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10110; http://www.wwnorton.com/; 11.3 x 12.5 in; hardbound; 340 pages, 237 b/w photos; $100.00
A trip to the photography section of a well-stocked bookstore will yield shelves full of photographer’s monographs. Countless spines arrest the eyes, each one vying to be the stylish work that convinces you that this photographer is the American Master.
And then there is David Plowden.
Plowden is one of the few living links between today and the greats of documentarian photography, the geniuses of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and others who participated in the Farm Services Administration’s photography project during the Great Depression. Their work, seminal to the documentary style, was paradoxically emotive, evoking a minimalistic visual poetry. Plowden — who struck up a friendship with Evans in the late ’50s — built upon this tradition, mixing a lyric style of photography with a documentary sensibility.
Over the course of his career, Plowden has published numerous books, almost always organized along topical lines: great lakes steam boats, great bridges of North America, vanishing small towns. He also has a fascination for railroads, the first love on which he lavished his camera — indeed his first published photo was in TRAINS Magazine in 1954. This love expanded to encompass all manner of industrial subjects, from steamships and tugboats to steel mills and grain elevators. Now 76 years old, Plowden is at the end of his career, and it seems natural that he would publish a retrospective volume of his photography. Vanishing Point is that work.
The book opens — after two images and a table of contents– with a forward by Richard Snow, formerly the editor of American Heritage. Here Snow ably pens a brief discussion of Plowden’s career. The brush strokes are light, and those familiar with Plowden’s work might criticize it as being repetitive or unnecessary, but it provides a valuable taste of the text and photos to follow, almost as if it were a kind of abstract of the remaining book. A gentle start: so far, so good.
All this changes changes with the turn of the page and a remarkable 14-page introductory essay by Steve Edwards. Edwards brings his journalist sensibilities to the fore as he spins the story of the life and career of David Plowden. In so many ways, the story the journalist tells seems almost cinematic: a troubled childhood in New England, a youth amongst railroad men, a struggle to study a discipline he hated (economics) at Yale in hopes of making himself a better railroad employee following graduation. The reader is treated to the full transit of the photographer’s disillusionment with the railroad world and with more common paths of life that would eventually bring him to photography. And here he works for Winston Link, studies under Minor White, and becomes fast friends with Walker Evans.
Edward’s portrait is deftly penned with a light touch and a sensitivity to emotions and motives that makes the reader feel they can get inside — if only for a brief moment — the heart and mind of the photographer. He is sympathetic, but candid too; Plowden’s single-minded devotion to his art often came at the expense of a relationship with his children and eventually cost him his first marriage. The event is part of a repeating pattern of loss that seems endemic to Plowden’s drive. Edwards relates a point in 1960, after Plowden had left the studio of Minor White, feeling he had made a great mistake to study photography. The scene is rural Maine, and the photographer is standing the the cab of a steam locomotive on the very last steam-powered run on the line.
“‘While that engine died, I sat in the cab in Brownsville Junction and watched the gauge drop to zero,’ [Plowden] says. The loss was palpable; the very thing that had provided so much joy and escape during his troubled childhood had vanished.”
In the space of a few short sentences, Edwards gets to the burning core of Plowden’s modus operandi.
After this come the photographs themselves. Plowden was once scoffed at for being a “topical” photographer; here he wears this on his sleeve, dividing the book into seven thematic chapters of plates. Each is designated by only a roman numeral, with no title, no explanatory text, no attempt at interpretation. It is only the chapter divider, the plates, and in tiny text at the bottom, a plate number and very cursory caption.
Although railroads were Plowden’s first love, they are not the focus of the work, and indeed the images of railroads he presents here are not the strongest images in the book. The most amusing thing about these images is the first plate, a photo of a Great Northern steam-powered freight near Wilmar, Minnesota: it violates nearly every rule of railroad photography convention, with no light on the nose of the locomotive, a broad foreground space of snow and haphazard weeds, and a line of poles and wires directly in front of the engine!
In addition to the train-centric images are more domestic moments, with the engines getting washed, maintained, and fueled by engine terminal crews. These images display a cinematic quality that is similar to Link, and indeed many of the plates date from 1959-1960, around the time of Plowden’s association with that famous photographic dramatist. There is, however, one key element that is notably different; while Link resorted to everything short of building a personal hydrogen-powered sun to light his subjects with Hitchcockian precision, Plowden has worked only with available light. The result? His images seem fresher and more natural than Link’s, as if the events in them had taken place but a few days ago, rather than decades hence.
Far more stunning than the railroad plates are the nautical images, such as plate 31, “Tugboat Julia C. Moran Undocking Liner, Hudson River, New York City (1975)”. We are on the forward deck of a Hudson tug, barely seeing more than a few inches of the con. Out forward is a single man — one of the few humans that Plowden has included in his Hopperesque de-peopled world — unwrapping one of the ropes that holds the liner to the tug. And behind hims soars the great silver rivet-speckled bow of the hull of an ocean liner, so massive that her decks and superstructure are lost somewhere in an Olympian height beyond the view of the camera.
Bridges are, of course, one of David Plowden’s greatest loves, and with boyish glee he gives us great hulking massive flying piles of steel. My favorite is probably one of the closest to me, an image of Newport, Oregon’s Yaquina Bay Bridge shown in plate 61. The photo looks down the empty length of the span, and flanked between two gothic concrete spires curves the steel arch of the main bridge. The top nearly disappears into coastal fog, and the far end is barely even there at all. Beyond, there is no world, no ocean, no hills.
Next comes a chapter on industrial subjects, lead by a large set of photographs of the steel making process. Giant metal buckets, glowing molten steel, flashing dancing sparks. After a tour of this mechanical Hades, Plowden takes us on a journey through a litany of “back end” jobs, a hidden world of industry and commerce that few get to see. We see the great ore docks. We meet the solitary men who work in the bellies of steamships. We walk among lunar piles of coal and of iron ore. We get lost amongst the clinical inhumanity of a nuclear power plant.
The fifth chapter could be best described as wastelands. The images here are perhaps the most complex and most postmodern of the book. This America is one that is decaying, where every house hasn’t been painted since FDR was president and each car looks like only Richard Roundtree would want to drive it, if it were still 1975 anyway. The bleakness, the desolation, the emptiness here is almost disturbing. Every now and then, I catch a sensation that reminds me of the empty highway-spaces of Jeff Brouws. There is a vague notion of social commentary emerging here, especially in the few plates here that show people; what is the future of the freckle-faced boy from rural West Virginia in plate 132? What kind of life awaits the girl staring out the window in plate 136? The state of paint and repair of her Pennsylvania home doesn’t give much hope of stewardship for the world she is about to inherit. And in plate 143, shot in 1967, even the iconic form of the Statue of Liberty is framed by power poles and trash.
Love re-enters the picture in chapter six. Here is rural America, and rural Americana: the small town main street, the general store, the hardware store. This is the world that is fast fleeting, a victim of a rural populace mystified at the decline of tradition and Main Street while they push their shopping carts down the aisles of Wal-Mart. The shop-keepers — when they appear at all — are old, their faces as cracked as the paint of their wooden floorboards. And now and then we get children, too, and an old couple in Iowa who keep a clapboard house with Swiss net curtains, and we get the silence of over-furnished empty front parlors from houses that were built when people knew what the heck the word “parlor” even meant.
Storm clouds on the plains of New Mexico opens up the seventh and final chapter of Vanishing Point. It is the same image that is used on the dust jacket, a powerful, sweeping metaphor for the elegy that is the remainder of the book. From here out, there will be no more people, not a single solitary one. Indeed the only identifiable living creature is a single horse — pale like that ridden by Death in the Four Horseman of the Book of Revelations. It stares out at us kindly from a single small square window in the side of a barn in plate 221. We are alone now, in the plains, navigating by grain elevators. We walk freely amongst barns and inside of feed mills. It seems that dust still hangs in the air, as if someone was just here, just working, but where have they gone? There is a profound solemnity, as if in church, and each successive image shows us less and tells us more.
The final image — plate 235 — returns us back to where we and Plowden both began. It is a railroad track. Frost once wrote of two roads that diverged in a wood, one well taken, and one rarely so. Plowden, like the poet, took the one “less travelled by”. Here, though, we see the mainline — the path well worn — and the diverging route merging towards a switch that unites them. Are we looking backwards from the diverging route of Plowden’s life, to see what has gone now collectively behind us? Or are we looking ahead, and seeing that even the route less taken eventually winds to the same common end? Take care and note: there are no buildings. There are no people. There is not even a train. There is only a track that crests over a small rise and disappears, and beyond that, empty hills bearing no promises. It is an evocative image on which to end the collection of photographic plates, especially considering that the book is meant as a retrospective of an entire career.
The closing text of the work is from Plowden himself, and his voice crackles with energy. Here he is full of humor and wit, buoyant in a way that is natural to those who have such a keen sense of loss and of the fleeting nature of time. Here we are imbued in a world of technical geekdom but told in such a loving fashion that, like the sometimes nonsensical phrasing of a T.S. Elliot poem, the reader is enthralled. He tells a hilarious narrative of his bad luck in camera choices, contraptions that seemed bent on being too bulky, too complicated, or too delicate to stand up to the demands he would place on them. The notes read like a letter from a favorite grandfather that you rarely see. It is perhaps the most valuable text in the book, and as precious as any of the photographic plates bound within the book’s pages.
This is a heavy book, weighing in at over five pounds. The binding is stout but never gets in the way of viewing the photographic plates, even in the middle of this thick volume. The paper is strong and bright and feels good under the hand. Reproduction on the photos is outstanding with fine tonal range. The design work on the book tends towards minimalist, with subtle tones, simple font choices, and bold charcoal-hued chapter dividers bearing stark roman numerals and nothing more. All the plates are produced in a nearly full-page format, with white margins neither distractingly thin nor drastically wide. Image grouping is carefully planned; where images face each other across pages (which is most of the time), the images act as a kind of diptych, reflecting some common graphic value or subject theme, while images that are strongest on their own are displayed solitary against a blank page. The book looks and feels like every penny of its $100 price.
Vanishing Point is a monumental volume befitting the lifetime’s work of one of America’s greatest photographers. There is no question that this is one of the finest books I have had the pleasure of adding to my collection in years. It is a shame that some in the world of high art have derided Plowden as a “topical” artist. For every avant-guard photographer the art schools crank out, few will ever achieve the richness and depth of the American soul that David Plowden has. His work stands alongside the paintings of Edward Hopper and the literature of Mark Twain as essential to understanding the uniqueness of American culture. With an outstanding introduction, a collection of stunning plates, and a precious gem of an afterward from Plowden himself, Vanishing Point proves itself the definitive work of Plowden’s life. No serious photographer of American culture should be without it. Photography books this fine are rarely printed en-masse; when this book finally sells out, it will likely begin to appreciate in price steadily. Buy it while it’s new, before you have to pay twice as much for a used copy.