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Stopping By: Portraits from Small Towns…

Stopping By: Portraits from Small Towns (Visions of Illinois)

by Raymond Bial

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I was disappointed with this collection. I hardly see these portraits as representative of small-town Illinois or even representative of the people in the portraits.

Judging by the captions it's clear the photographer arrived in town and visited the same places every time: barbershops, garages, cafes. Male bastions. It's mostly men in the photographs (with women waitresses and a few wandering boys thrown in). Now it's possible -- as described in the foreword -- "that's all there is" in these towns. Really? In towns with as many as 3000 people? No schools, parks, town squares, libraries, houses, churches, government offices? His one public official was photographed in a cafe. I'm guessing it was just happenstance that the photographer found him there.

And judging by the nearly universal pose (i.e., standing against the wall, straight, and staring into the camera) it suggests to me that most people were feeling awkward and just getting their picture taken to please the guy with the camera. I see WTH? in most of their faces. These portraits tell me more about the photographer than about the subjects. The foreword says he wanted them in "natural" stances; "sincere" rather than "revelatory" or "mysterious". But the opposite is true. Back against a wall and looking straight into a camera is not natural; it's artificial. The effect is exaggerated in black & white. The compositions are almost all the same. Even in a small town, people are individuals, but they appear here as the photographer wanted them. Colorless. He stripped them of personality (save for the clothes they happened to be wearing that day). As a sad man's photo essay of people caught off guard by a stranger in dying small towns, he succeeded, but that's a pretty crummy way to treat people.

The photographer's collection might have been better if he had caught THEIR personality, not his.

Find more of my reviews at Mostly NF.
  benjfrank | Feb 20, 2012 |
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