By Michael Weinstein
“I suppose I am a heretic,” David Plowden says with more than a touch of jovial irony. He is also a man who has achieved wisdom through his lifelong romance with the world through his camera.
Plowden’s heresy is to be a master of the fine black-and-white photographic print of a straight shot that captures a subject—be it the densest landscape under the most dappled sky, or the sparest streamlined artifact—in all its complexity and individuality. In an age of digital shutterbugs, who is willing, as Plowden does, to spend a day driving through North Dakota solely in search of the perfect subject, framing it—if he is lucky enough to find one—”in the field” with single-minded concentration, and then taking the negative through a painstaking process of darkroom development that results in a print that makes a moment of the fleeting world exquisitely permanent?
In our graphic disposable age, the fine print is becoming passé and Plowden knows that. We want flash, not subtlety; we want to sense and emote, not to perceive and contemplate. Plowden’s injunction to all who will listen is: “Stop and look at things!”
It is no exaggeration to say that “looking carefully” is the key to Plowden’s entire life—his passion and his mission. Conversation with him quickly reveals that the camera is not an end in itself, but simply the best instrument for “seeing the world the way it is,” and that the fine print is the best medium for preserving the subject against the tooth of time.
Indeed, the photograph conveys reality more authentically than perception of the world through our naked eyes, in Plowden’s view. The fine straight print “separates things so that we can look carefully at them.” With a certain optimism, Plowden adds that “you have to look at a still.”
With self-irony, Plowden acknowledges that he is “asking too much” of his viewers. They must follow him back to the experience that he had when he took the shot, attentive to “every detail.” Then they must “use their imagination “to inhabit the scene and respond to it with personal associations. All of this takes time, which is presently in short social supply.
Time is of the essence to Plowden. Not only does he want to memorialize the subject of a moment of experience and thereby recreate that moment in the viewer’s response, but he chooses subjects that are vanishing from the humanly constructed landscape, committing a second heretical sin. What does an age obsessed with novelty—albeit superficial—want with the abandoned silos, steam locomotives, mom-and-pop stores, steel mills and Great Lakes freighters that Plowden serves up as subjects worthy of a careful look? Plowden wants to remind us of what we are losing or have already lost, much to his regret at 75 years old after a half-century devoted to preservation through photography.
Plowden’s mission might seem to be tinged with nostalgia, which is the bête noir of the postmodern hipoisie. If culture is simply a construct to be altered at whim and will, the cardinal sin is to look back with longing to a past that never really was what we think it was now as we contemplate a two-dimensional colorless representation on a piece of paper.
Plowden is unmoved, remaining steadfastly the pure opposite of today’s conventional sophisticated wisdom. He is troubled by the tendency of younger photographers to say “look at me” and to “strive to be different.” As a professor of photography, he would take students into the field and, when they complained that everything around them had been shot straight before, he would answer: “But you haven’t done it. Get over your self-consciousness about being derivative. Enjoy what you’re looking at. Forget if anyone has been here before.”
That is not nostalgia, but a decided preference for reality over novelty. Plowden explains that he photographs the vanishing landscape of factories, farms and small towns because “without these icons we will lose our identity. We are doing our best to obliterate our sense of identity. I feel very strongly about that.” In an age of identity-experimentation, marketed identities and cyber-personae, Plowden is fighting a losing battle. In an increasingly virtual culture, images of the past are fragments of an archive to be sliced and diced, and mixed and melded into instant traditions for the moment.
Plowden was called to his mission early in life, before he learned to see through the camera. The life-changing experience that set him on his journey occurred in his boyhood spending summers in Vermont, where he fell in love with the steam locomotives that still plied the tracks there. One day, he realized that those magnificent machines would soon vanish from the scene, and he was seized with the wish to remember them and somehow to preserve them. At that moment, he had found his center and his life’s work.
Already at his core, the impulse to attentive preservation flowered when Plowden took up photography in his youth and, from then on, he continually perfected his ability to see and record. Plowden’s first great break came in 1958 when he was 26 years old and became the assistant to O. Winston Link, the famous photographer of steam engines. He counts his time with Link as more important than his private study with Minor White—the photographer’s photographer and master of the fine print—in 1959, and his years at Chicago’s Institute of Design from 1978 through 1986, where he encountered other versions of precision photography.
By the time he met Link, Plowden was already set on his course. An unabashed lover of railroads and a precise recorder of them, Link honed Plowden’s technical skills but, more importantly, gave him added confidence in his mission. His later encounters as he matured gave Plowden further capabilities along the path he had chosen, but did not turn him from his root commitment.
As his visual intelligence became keener, Plowden’s vistas broadened beyond steam engines to include all the vanishing vestiges of modern agricultural-industrial society. He is best known for his series of esteemed books, such as “The American Barn,” “Bridges: The Spans of North America” and “A Handful of Dust: Photographs of Disappearing America.” Plowden’s new book, “David Plowden: Vanishing Point—Fifty Years of Photography,” is a rich retrospective of 352 pages covering his entire output and capping a career that he says is now over, at least in the field; there is much work still to be done in the darkroom.
Plowden’s books allow the viewer to get a sense of his detailed aesthetic surface but, as he puts it, “the gallery is the best place to look closely at photographs,” because we see them there as they were meant to be seen, and in a space designed to encourage visual appreciation.
Is there any life left in the fine print? Is there any time left for careful looking at something that our culture has passed by and is obliterating? Those questions can be answered affirmatively by taking in Plowden’s impeccably curated retrospective exhibit at Catherine Edelman Gallery the way that Plowden suggests we do.
Plowden says that he offers the viewer a subject seen through his practiced eyes with the purely objective intent of bringing it to presence in its full detail. He is not administering a playful Rorschach test, but is engineering a confrontation in which the viewer is drawn into the subject and then meditates on it, associating with it only after taking the image in with single-pointed attention.
Viewers relaxed and receptive enough to follow Plowden’s directive will find themselves in a zone of communion with the subject that produces a sense of the subject’s independent power at the same time that it stimulates a contemplative mood that most often settles into wistfulness—a melancholy, yet strangely tranquil longing canceled by the affirmative resignation at the core of Plowden’s wisdom.
It is up to viewers to let the subject fill their individual experience and make its imprint, and then to identify with it personally, so that it will become part of living memory, even if it is not consciously recalled.
David Plowden is a philosopher with a camera—a visual sage. His current assistant, Josh Law, says: “I have never seen anyone as dedicated to what they believe in.”
Like his subjects, Plowden is of a vanishing breed and he is acutely aware of that. He requires our careful look because he teaches us to dwell with “wonderful things” that deserve to fuse with our lives.