Small Town America, by photographer David Plowden, is a favorite book. I wrote and published this review in Springhouse several years ago. The book was published by Henry N. Abrams, Inc. in 1994 (price $49.95) and although it’s no longer in print, it is available via Amazon sellers and used book sites.(1)
The American small town remains fixed in our imaginations. Those of us who have left small hometowns lament, paradoxically, at the changing social forces that beset small communities. Qualities remain fresh in our minds: the excitement that once typified the small business districts; the perceived slowness of time and pace; the ability to conduct serious business transactions on a first-name, handshake basis; the neighborliness along with the provinciality; the easy association of names and families; the lack of privacy that contrasts with the often-preferred anonymity of urban and suburban existence.
When I originally wrote this review in 1996, I had just self-published a set of previously-published essays in a little book Journeys Home. Therein, I remembered my mostly happy childhood in a small southern Illinois town, Vandalia, IL. In the years since I’ve continued to write about my home places, interjecting stories in otherwise my books with topics unrelated to the small-town theme. To use Frank Zappa’s term, the small town (and the larger themes of place and of human community) have comprised my “conceptual continuity.” If you have a similar kind of loyalty to your small town roots, you’ll appreciate Plowden’s words and pictures.
In spite of their seeming simplicity, small towns are very complex places, both in terms of social dynamics and in their potential for varied portraiture. In his introduction to Plowden’s book, David McCullough, author of acclaimed historical biographies, notes how different are the portraits of small towns among works by writers like Mark Twain, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, and Larry McMurtry (not to mention, he notes such different movies as It’s a Wonderful Life and Blue Velvet). Several photographers, like Quinta Scott (Route 66: The Highway and Its People, 1988, text by Susan Croce Kelly), Drake Hokansen (The Lincoln Highway, 1991), Richard Avedon (In the American West, 1983), and the novelist and photographer Wright Morris (The Home Place, 1947, Photographs and Words, 1991) have published haunting photographs of small town people and places.
In this book, David Plowden has brought together 111 photographs of small towns, taken over 25 years, into a composite portrait of “any town” U.S.A. Plowden has published several collections of his photographs. In the accompanying essay, Plowden recalls Putney, Vermont, where he was born in 1932. Liveries, general stores, “tonsorial parlors,” grist mills, and blacksmiths of the town had, by the time of his childhood, largely given way to barbershops and small cafes, local telephone operators who handled all incoming and outgoing calls, busy railroad stations, and a variety of downtown stores. Transactions were informal and trusting. One’s private affairs were public knowledge. The late-1800s facades of the business district featured modern signs more suitable for ubiquitous automobiles. Change inevitably comes, with interstate highways, Wal-Marts, and other franchises. The postwar generation, eager to be progressive, razed old buildings. Grand old hotels became homes for the elderly. Farms became “agribusinesses.” Prominent citizens died. “His” Putney no longer exists.
Many of us understand the poignancy of that change. Several years ago, in a Flagstaff, AZ, bookshop, I found Plowden’s earlier and angrier book, The Hand of Man in America (1973). Using his own words plus an array of black and white photos from around the country, Plowden called attention to the destruction wrought to American landscapes thanks to industry, strip malls, superhighways, and the loss of local heritage. Writing about local change can be subjective, for what is condemned as garish in one era is deemed old-fashioned in the next, and a few of Plowden’s 1973 examples of visual ugliness look to me today as quaint and even nostalgic.
Small Town America, while including concerns about social change, is a more positive though still elegiac account. That’s a value of photographs and judgments like his; they help us track social change and judge the value of structures that are part of our human-built landscapes. Plowden includes a generous number of black and white photographs from towns from New England to the West. He prefers buildings and rooms that hearken to his own childhood and includes fewer architectural steles characteristic of the 1950s and 1960s tourist trade. His exterior portraits include grain elevators, quiet railroad crossings, Victorian-era commercial blocks, and other styles and ornaments of vernacular architecture. He includes one photo of a wonderful old gas pump that still carries its glass crown.
Most of Plowden’s photographs depict interiors: antique hardware cabinets still in use, heavily used roll-top desks, general stores, barbershops, theaters, hotels, taverns, post offices, courtrooms, lodges, libraries, schools, and churches. I love one church interior that has the old-fashioned wooden display board for weekly attendance and offerings. Such photographs call attention to the towns’ “glory days” yet testify that the furniture and fixtures of bygone eras are by no means removed from everyday life, nor rejected for not being modern.
He also photographs several people: a horse trader, a rare blacksmith in the full regalia of his trade, a kid on a bicycle, children in school, a librarian, a judge, farmers, a barber, a tavern owner, a woman who runs a restaurant, a bearded restaurant customer working on his beer, and other small town folk. Like Quinta Scott’s Route 66 individuals, and unlike Richard Avedon’s Western people, Plowden’s several portraits of small town people look natural, in the midst of their life and work, and by no means unhappy. They’re the kind of people you and I know well.
1. This book is one of several books that Plowden (who turned 81 last October) has published, like the recent Requiem for Steam: The Railroad Photographs of David Plowden. His website is davidplowden.com.