Springfield, Ohio: The End of the American Road
Admiration of the proletariat, like that of dams, power stations, and aeroplanes, is part of the ideology of the machine age.
Bertrand Russell. Unpopular Essays, "The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed"
This project was begun in the fall of 1966, on the day when I watched a woman concoct a mojo love charm, discovered a jar of
lustrous Tiffany grapes in a filthy junk shop, and saw a man's head repeatedly slammed against the concrete block wall of a bar on
East Main Street, spraying little fans of blood each time it hit. I photographed a few of these things, but was at the same time wary
of photographing any of them. Part of my wariness was shyness and physical fear, part a kind of moral squeamishness, and the
balance a young man's horror at the thought of aping anything from the past. I was aware of the way the "underclass" had been
represented in photography and literature-as victims of oppression, as sub-humans, as savages nobly sanctified by suffering, as
people who are just like the rest of us, as free spirits-and was loath to repeat them.
By the early 90s, when I began photographing Main Street in a serious way, my reservations had changed little. Springfield, however,
appeared to have completed what looked like a disastrous project of urban renewal by demolition. On the street, however, much was
the same. Most of the people I met were poor African-Americans and Appalachians, a surprising number of whom possessed-or
claimed-aboriginal ancestors. A few were self-made men and women who owned stores or factories. The children of this small middle
class had moved away, become educated, and pursued professions. In general, though, the children of Main Street remained bound
to a tight orbit of place, class, and culture.
Fairly early on, I abandoned the notion of "documentary" photography as a useful category for what I was doing because I knew that
my document couldn't pretend to objectivity or completeness. As I walked from the depressed commercial reaches of West Main
through the oddly quiet and empty downtown to the fast-food alley of East Main, it seemed that I was moving through a world too
fluid and varied to be easily characterized by still images. The visual choices I made were coloured by a palette of influences, most
of whom are modernist American photographers such as Walker Evans and Russell Lee, but Diane Arbus and Robert Frank are, I'd
like to think, also in evidence. I'm sure that a variety of social judgments and summaries are embedded in these choices, and can
only hope that I've sidestepped some of the representational bogs that I feared getting lost in when I was young.
All these images are the result of collaborations with the subjects, and all the subjects I was able to reach received prints. Some of
them thought I might be mad, spending 12 hours on the street in July introducing myself to strangers, other worried that I was a
police agent, others thought that I was just having a good time. All of them, however, saw me as a curious stranger in their home
environments, and regarded me with suspicion that, fortunately, was alloyed with hospitality and, eventually, trust.