The PhotoBook Journal

November 14, 2008

David Plowden – Vanishing Point

Filed under: Book Reviews, Photo Book Discussions, Photo Books — Tags: , — Doug Stockdale @ 2:34 am

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East of Las Vegas, New Mexico, 1971 copyright 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 and published by W. W. Norton.

Initially I thought that this book by Plowden was going to be easy to review. It is beautifully printed and bound and a real 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 which is an imprint of E.P. Dutton & Co.

Rereading the Edwards introduction I remembered Plowden’s early relationship with Walker Evans who was a friend of his first wife’s family. And I think that this what has been troubling me.

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Hostler, Canadian National Railways, Hamilton, Ontario, 1959

As you look at the photographs made over Plowden’s long career I can sense the similarities 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 Plowden’s 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 photographic 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 then 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 although Plowden was accepted as a student of Minor White he bailed out to photograph steam trains which Plowden understood that these days were probably numbered. Plowden wanted to photograph the landscape literally as more of a passive and not a critical social observer.

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Outer Depot, Reading Company, Reading, PA, 1963

I think that by the time Walker met Plowden that Plowden was already entrenched in his purpose and photographic style. That style just became more finely honed with Evans assistance. Plowden’s work does seem like a more contemporary Atget and Evans as it just did not evolve forward from there.

That is not to detract from Plowden’s body of work which I find quite beautiful and still. He follows more in the line of the documentary style of the FSA photographs. To capture what is now knowing very soon that this will be what was. His early fascination is with steam trains, steam tug boats and failing bridges. He does that with clarity and this shows through very well in this book. In comparison to my 1974 Commonplace, which looks clunky with the blacks blocked up. Regretfully, there are no images from Commonplace in this book as there are many earlier photographs that I would like to have seen printed with more clarity.

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The Yaquina Bay Bridge, Newport, OR, 1968

All in all Plowden’s photographs investigate the American landscape beautifully seen. A transitional time captured and documented with grace and style. Who could ask for more?

Best regards, Douglas Stockdale

BTW, on the nightstand is Robert Hansen’s Yucatan Passages and Beth Dow’s In The Garden.

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