I’ve come to be a great admirer of Plowden. His photography is simultaneously straightforward yet lyrical. Unlike the works of, say, the New Topographics movement, Plowden’s work doesn’t imply a value judgement. Instead, the reaction provoked is more emotional, and is usually described as loss. He has famously described his career as a photographer as being “one step ahead of the wrecking-ball.”
What does that have to do with this image? Many things. The subject itself — Portland’s Guilds Lake industrial park — is slowly fading from its railroad industrial past. More significantly, this image is part of an in-progress series, an intentionally unromantic take on the railroad world. Yet, precisely by being intentionally unromantic, this image (and its series kin) become about loss too, the loss of the romantic viewpoint.
Maybe loss is integral to photography. Cameras, after all, have always held the promise of extending the moment, of being an external memory device. First steps. Birthdays. Weddings. Friends. You know the drill. You want to capture memories, preserve them before they, too, become victims of loss. And besides, entropy is not only a lot easier to find than growth, it is required to precede it: the first sign of newness is usually the sweeping away of something old.
And in the ultimate sense of Time’s irony, it’s barely possible to stay ahead of the wrecking ball anymore. The wrecking ball is going the way of, well, the wrecking ball.
Since I’ve discussed both David Plowden and the New Topographics, there are a few more things I should mention. First, the New Topographics exhibit is together again, and on tour. The closest it will get to the Pacific Northwest will be at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, starting in July. There’s also a new book out, and I strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in landscape photography or critical photography. Second, Plowden has a book forthcoming this fall, Requiem for Steam from W. W. Norton. Keep an eye out for it.