East of Las Vegas, New Mexico, 1971 – book cover- copyright of David Plowden
Last year in 2007, a retrospective book was published about David Plowden’s photographs, Vanishing Point: Fifty Years of Photograph, with an introduction by Steve Edwards, published by W. W. Norton.
Initially I thought that this book by Plowden was going to be easy to review. This book is beautifully printed and bound, a joy to read. I have followed Plowden’s photographic landscape series for probably thirty years, and I have a copy of his book Commonplace, published in 1974 by Chatham book, an imprint of E.P. Dutton & Co.
Rereading the Edwards introduction, I remembered Plowden’s early relationship with Walker Evans, a friend of his first wife’s family. And I think that this what has been troubling me.
Hostler, Canadian National Railways, Hamilton, Ontario, 1959
As you look at the photographs made over Plowden’s long career, you can sense the similiarities between Plowden and Walker. In fact Plowden quotes Walker for the reason he composes many of his photographs, “give me a corner to walk around so that I can use my imagination. Don’t tell me everything“. As a result, many of Plowdens photographs do not include people, because Plowden wants the viewer to inhabit the scene and make it their own.
But why then is Plowden then not recognized as continuing the photograpic tradition of Evans? When we think of the evolution of Atget to Walker, we usually think next of Robert Frank and then Gary Winogrand? If Plowden spent so much time discussing photography and printing with the older Walker, what is the disconnect?
I now believe, as evident in this book, that Plowden probably did not fully embrace all of the reasons behind Walker’s vision and purpose. One clue may be that altough Plowden was accepted as a student of Minor White, he bailed out on White’s tutorage to photogaph steam trains, which Plowden understood, whose days were numbered. Plowden wanted to photograph the landscape literally, as more of a passive, not a critical, social observer.
Outer Depot, Reading Company, Reading, PA, 1963
I think that by the two met, that Plowden was already entrenched in his purpose and photographic style. That style just became more finly honed with Evans assistance. And Plowden’s work does seem like a more contemporay Atget and Evans, it just did not evolve forward from there.
That is not to detract from Plowden’s body of work, which is quite beautiful and still. He follows in the line of the documenatary style of the FSA photographs. To capture what is now, but knowing very soon that will be what was. His early fasination with steam trains, steam tug boats and failing bridges. He does that with clarity, which shows through very well in this current book. In comparsion, my 1974 Commonplace looks clunky, with the blacks blocked up. Regrefully, there are no past images carried forward, as there are many that I would like to have seen printed with more clarity.
The Yaquina Bay Bridge, Newport, OR, 1968
All in all, it is the American landscape, beautifully seen. A transitional time, captured and documented with gace and style. Who could ask for more?
Best regards, Doug Stockdale
BTW, on the nightstand is Robert Hansen’s Yucatan Passages and Beth Dow’s In The Garden.