By Justin Kimball, with essay by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa
Radius Books 2016
Reviewed by Lauren Greenwald
We have all driven through these towns. The main street is empty; buildings are boarded up. The only store is the Family Dollar. There’s a gas station and maybe a fast-food joint. Many houses seem abandoned – some should be. There is a factory, or a plant, but long since closed. But there are people who live there, still. Many of us come from towns like these, or ones that have become so.
The first page of Justin Kimball’s book provides us with a definition of elegy: a poem of serious reflection. In his images of small towns, he is creating a contemporary record of a type of place, one increasingly common across the country: communities struggling on the brink of ruin. The declining towns in this book are in New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, but they could be anywhere in the United States. The titles of the images are simply the street names, and they are so recognizable as American ones - named after presidents, trees, minerals, landmarks, and ideals. Lincoln, Roosevelt, Spruce, Oak, Coal, Canal, Railroad, Liberty. These names are not confined to a region – they are of a nation.
Justin Kimball has a history of photographing on the road, beginning with vacations driving cross-country in the family van. In a recent conversation, he said he remembers seeing towns like the ones he is photographing now, but they were few and far between. now, he feels you can go into any state in the US and drive 40 minutes and find one. "We still think of these places as being in the minority, but they aren't."
The photographs for this body of work began in 2012, when the news was filled with the 2012 election and the media was focused on the 1% and the middle class. The communities outside these confines were less of a priority at the time. But Kimball, based in Massachusetts, saw them. He observed that there was something ubiquitous in these towns: struggle, hope, perseverance, and a sense of what they were and what they might become. He started photographing the towns, and people's back yards, looking for clues to how people put their lives together. Initially, people assumed he was "...either from the government, or the bank." They thought his tripod was a transit and he was surveying the properties, or he was documenting the buildings for collections agencies. But then, they were curious, and generously allowed him to photograph their property, and in some cases, themselves.
The images in this series show us streets, buildings, backyards, the fabric of the landscape. One backyard view looks down a grassy hill onto a derelict above ground swimming pool, leaves and a crumpled plastic tarp floating in the pea green water. Further down the slope, house after house stack up to create a patchwork of vinyl siding, brick and shingle. One striking element of so many of the images is the flattening of space that occurs – buildings are superimposed over each other, one looks though windows and doors into reflections and onto more surfaces, a stratification of elements captured in the frame.
We rarely see sky in these photographs, just a compression of the built and the natural landscape, creating a collage of object and earth. The accumulation of years is visible, too, as the structures of the past watch expectantly over the landscape, while being stripped down by time, weather, or scavengers.
Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa contributed the insightful text, titled A Continuity of Fragments. He observed, “Kimball’s photographs often devolve around the structure of a grid that holds discontinuous fragments in uniform suspension.” This imposition of a grid, and underlying matrix, exists not only in the landscapes but in the portraits as well, as he also writes, “bodies coincide in space but seemingly not in time.” The people in the images seem curiously disconnected from each other, existing in separate orbits. There is something uncanny in their depiction - as if they are physically illustrating that the division of past, present, and future is just an illusion. A group of four boys of varying ages playing football are paused in their game, each standing isolated, representing perhaps the different stages of boyhood, and all of the games that had been played on that field. Workers on a roof appear frozen as statuary on a parapet, while in other images groups of young people lounge on curbs, or stand at a bus stop, none looking at or touching the others, as layered into and bound by the frame as the forms and structures in the other images. One in particular combines these elements perfectly, a man and a woman stand next to a garage in an alley, the young woman in front of a deep orange wall, looking impatiently into the distance as if she wants to run away, while the man stands distracted, staring down at this phone.
With this photograph, as with many in the book, I caught myself taking a second look, as it seemed composited, the disjunction between the elements in the image too profound. The image cuts across the gutter of the book, which divides it into two separate parts. Often in photo books, images are confined to one page only, and the system of pairings, blank pages, and the few images spanning the gutter combine to create a specific rhythm. Here, Kimball and Radius Books turn that convention on its head, with every spread containing a single image, floating back and forth across the pages, much like the floating, untethered nature of the people themselves. The binding allows the book to lay flat, open, and at almost two feet wide, it demands to be spread out on a table. Looking at it reminds me of reading a road atlas, tracing a route from one side of the page to the other, jumping the boundary of the binding, then finding the connection where you know it joins up to the next state or county. With these oversized images, the reader is given permission to sit with them longer, to have time for contemplation. The elegy, the mournful lament, the act of remembrance, is for us all.
There is so much complexity in Kimball’s images, as there is in our own lives and our current time. I think Wolukau-Wanambwa says it particularly well when he writes, “In both literal and metaphorical ways, his pictures address the interweaving of separateness and simultaneity, renewal and decline, proliferation and emptiness, entropy and the relentless cycles of capitalism.” There is no simple way to talk about the issues our country is facing today, and certainly no single way of presenting ideas. Justin Kimball offers us a portrait of our times for reflection, sensitively and beautifully. When I asked him about the timeliness of the book, he responded that the timing wasn’t accidental - he began after the last election and finished before the current one - but given the recent presidential election outcome, it is receiving much more attention, in a more political light than he had originally imagined. Elegy debuted this November at Paris Photo, and when people looked at the book, their responses and reactions were very different based on where they were from. He said, “It’s interesting to see how people take the book apart and digest it.” I, for one, think it’s important they do.
Lauren Greenwald is an Assistant Professor of Photography at the University of South Carolina.
She lives and works in Columbia, SC.