Many of these scenes are familiar and many of these places are known, but that doesn’t make and of this less striking. Photographer Christopher Payne set out to capture the landscapes and workrooms of America’s textile mills and factories. The scenes are intense and colorful, and may very well serve as a time-capsule portrait of an industrial complex which is nearing its last run. These photos and the photographer came to my attention recently through ‘Fruit of the Loom‘, a recent New York Times Magazine photo essay. This textile photo series began when Christopher “stumbled on an old yarn mill in Maine” and was inspired by the old machinery and the small-scale manufacturing that is largely forgotten in America. Payne visits Woolrich in Pennsylvania, New England Shirt in Fall River and various other mills in-between, seeking the beautiful colors and symmetrical scenes that these seeming lost industrial holdovers present.
If you want an unflinching view of present-day America, look no further than Magnum photographer Alec Soth and writer Brad Zellar’s self-published LBM Dispatch Series. Drawing from the tradition of Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley and Kerouac and Frank’s The Americans, it is a serial journal of photos and writings that unfolds state by state, telling the stories of how we Americans are living today; how we get by, how we chase dreams, how we gather together and connect. As a photographic newspaper or travelogue, the LBM Dispatch bridges the gap between the immediacy of a blog and the beauty and permanence of an art book with each edition edited, laid out, printed and shipped just a week or two after the trip is completed. Empathetic, genuine, humorous and inspiring – the LBM Dispatch is a reminder that America is richer, sweeter and more nuanced than pollsters and cable television pundits would have us believe. Soth and Zellar were kind enough to answer a few questions for ACL about how the project came about and where they plan on taking it.
ACL: I assume that the newsprint format that you use for the LBM Dispatch was a discovery you made with The Last Days of W. What is it about newsprint that feels right for this project?
Alec Soth: Yes, that is true, but there are differences. The Last Days of W. was never a fully-fledged project. In that case I was digging through old photographs and wanted to make something that was modest and impermanent. So newsprint made sense, but it wasn’t actually constructed like a newspaper. With a writer and photographer going out telling stories, Dispatch is much more like a newspaper. And the immediacy of the form also made sense. But the project is much more ambitious than Last Days. That is partly why, in fact, we no longer print on newsprint. The first two issues were done that way, but the quality was just so meager —particularly in the dark values— that we switched to offset printing. This made the whole process much more expensive.
ACL: I love the idea that the LBM Dispatch is inspired by local newspapers. I grew up in a rural logging town in Oregon and our local paper takes itself just as seriously as say The New York Times, which I think is great. I feel like you guys approach the work in the same way. How does this idea or framework of being reporters help propel the stories and trips along.
Brad Zellar: It’s certainly the key to the whole thing. Although we don’t represent ourselves as reporters, our approach to the work is still very much a hunt for newsworthy or interesting stories and characters. I worked at my own local daily newspaper in a small Minnesota town, and the things that interested me way back when —the profiles of local people and the search for colorful or poignant yarns and haunted history— are still the things I tend to look for.
AS: I’m prone to self-indulgence. I’m much more likely to daydream or ponder my own neuroses than investigate the world ‘out there.’ One of the reasons I was interested in joining the photo agency Magnum is that I figured their tradition of doing documentary work would help keep me honest – keep pushing me out into the world. But I go back and forth. My last project, Broken Manual, was definitely inward looking. Afterward, I realized I needed to balance things out. But doing editorial work was increasingly unsatisfying. So Brad and I started our own paper. While it isn’t a conventional newspaper, having that as the backbone of the project does keep me from doing too much navel gazing.
The U.S. Geological Survey has a nice collection of photos from the national parks of the American West, including a bunch of images from the various surveys of Yellowstone National Park from late 1800s that eventually led to the land being protected forever by the government. These early black and white photographs capture the beautiful natural landscape of an area that has gone on to become one of the most celebrated and a widely visited places in America.
Hope you had a productive day so far, because this is a day-wrecker. National Geographic recently launched an archival Tumblr called Found which is a gold mine of great imagery from the decades of photojournalism from the United States and throughout the world. (See also: The Lively Morgue.)
A few of these images had been popping up in my Tumblr dashboard, but I wasn’t sure as to their origin until last night when I discovered this new site. Seeing this for the first time was a similar experience to when the Life archive (which I might have posted about here and there) was made available via Google. Though what has been posted is just a tiny offering of the vast NatGeo archive, it’s a nice start to what will undoubtedly be a long and enjoyable friendship. [FOUND]
These photographs are interesting to me for a few reasons. 1. My grandfather grew up sailing skiffs like the ones you see below. We have a bunch of old photos of him on the water near Boston. 2. It is interesting to see that a lot of the style in these photos could very easily fit right in today even though most of these photos are very old. 3. DB sport coats and sneakers. 4. Bucket hats. 5. They remind me that good things are on the horizon.
Summer’s right around the corner and right about I’d like it if I were out to sea like these gentlemen. That means, Newport and other assorted nautical adventures with cocktails. Then finally this September are the America’s Cup finals in San Francisco which is going to be amazing. I’m making a point to be there for at least one weekend’s worth of it. I was in SF this spring for work and from my client’s office you could see the tall AC boats sailing by and it was pretty astonishingly beautiful.
A fitting set of images and sentiments for today. The Boston Public Library has an incredible set of old-time winter scenes shot in and around Boston during the early 20th century. What’s piques my attention in these photographs is the fact that many of the pictured moments are so similar to those of today —from snow filled streets to a towering stack of Christmas trees— though the times are obviously vastly different. To see the packages piled high at the train depot (South Station I believe), the range of photos of people digging out from blankets of snow and the empty nighttime streets after what must have been cold hard days fill me with ideas about what life must have been like way back then.
These days we are rarely without a camera, yet how often do we hold an actual photograph? We flip through streams of jpegs, on Tumblr, Instagram and the rest, we “like,” reblog and create virtual slideshows. We get daily dispatches from friends on alpine treks, course-by-course accounts of elaborate meals, and inspect carefully curated interiors. It’s so easy to create an evocative filter that we’ve become suspicious of what we’re looking at. It was not always thus.
Bunny Yeager’s photographs are direct and bracing. They remind us of the basic power of controlling the image and the elemental act of provocation. It should be mentioned that she was a pinup girl and named “world’s prettiest photographer” of 1953. You can enjoy her handiwork in the new book Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom: Pin-Up Photography’s Golden Era, (Rizzoli).