On Proximity in Photography and Life
Updated: May 2, 2020
When I was in my 20s I lived in a cabin in the woods of southeastern Ohio. I’d recently graduated with a degree in photography from Ohio University, and I was trying to decide what to do with the rest of my life. It was the 1970s, and it was impossible to separate the early trauma of that decade―the Vietnam War and recent Kent State shootings―from the prospects of a future career in any field. The peace and quiet of the rolling hills near Athens offered much-needed respite from the harsh realities of the rest of the world.
The cabin my wife Susan and I built was both basic and a work of emotional art. With the help of my aunt, we’d bought 66 acres of undeveloped land about 15 miles from campus, and with a lot of enthusiasm and not much experience we launched into building our own back-to-the-land homestead. Over the course of three months, we tore down an old barn on a friend’s property and reused the imposing beams as the framework of our cabin.
By winter our trial-and-error construction methods provided us with a simple but incredibly sturdy home, intentionally off-the-grid and away from daily intrusions of unhappy news. Our heat was provided by a beautiful old cast-iron wood-burning stove, and we hauled water from a nearby spring. In the evenings, we read books by lamplight. During the first long winter, we amassed a wall-full of classic literature and other books scrounged from yard sales and friends who were moving away.
One day in the early spring there was a knock on our door, which had never happened before since our cabin was a fifteen-minute walk from the nearest road. A man introduced himself as Pete, our neighbor, a farmer and third-generation resident of the valley where we lived. He wanted to talk about possibly planting a crop in the open field that marked the entrance to our land. His face reminded me of a Walker Evans photo of tenant farmers, and his voice carried the distinctive twang of Appalachia. In spite of our differences, I immediately felt a connection with him, as though we were distant relatives meeting for the first time.
We stood in our one-room cabin and talked for a while, and I noticed he kept looking over my shoulder at the wall of books behind me. With my college-educated mindset, I assumed he was looking at specific titles, and I was about to ask if he wanted to borrow a book or two. Before I could say anything, he looked me in the eye and simply asked: “All them books real?”.
I was reminded of that and other memories about Ohio while looking through two recently published photography books: Carry Me Ohio by Matt Eich and Portsmouth, Collected Saturdays by Ken D. Ashton. I grew up in and near Portsmouth, a small town on the Ohio River, and it was from there that I traveled to school in Athens.
From where I was born to where I went to school was a mere 80 miles, but in terms of cultural distance, it felt like a million miles. In the 1950s and early ’60s, Portsmouth was a growing industrial city, boosted by a busy steel mill and a shoe manufacturing industry that at its peak employed nearly 4,000 workers. My father worked as a custom shoe designer, an unusual occupation that allowed him to be part of the city’s relatively well-to-do middle class.
For me, Portsmouth offered one thing that would change my life: a classic old-time photography studio with giant cameras and the smell of photographic chemicals. Our family would go there to have film developed, and I’d walk enthralled among the tall tripods and bright lights. At one point the owner invited me to come back into the darkroom and watch prints being developed. After that, I knew I wanted to be a photographer when I grew up.
By the time I left Portsmouth to go to school, it was clear that the city was changing. Cheaper production costs overseas led to the closing of the steel mill, and there were signs that the local shoe industry wouldn’t be far behind. A few years later the last shoe factory in Portsmouth shut its doors, and with that the city seemed to lose part of its heart.
Over the next twenty years, I returned to the city several times, usually with my father who had moved to Cincinnati but who still had many friends in Portsmouth. The last time I visited was in 2002, right before my father died. By then things had definitely changed, but the town still had a vitality to it. People celebrated the city’s connections to the river through festivals and art shows, and the streets around the local university were busy with students going to and from classes. It wasn’t boomtown USA, but it still exuded a sense of confidence. As I was leaving I felt hopeful for my hometown.
When I look at Ken Ashton’s new book I see a very different Portsmouth: abandoned buildings, empty streets, a visage devoid of life. On page after page, there are no people or even signs that people might have been there recently. It’s like looking at scenes of Chernobyl after people fled for their lives.
In case there is any doubt, the accompanying texts in the book dramatize what the images imply, as though a viewer might not be able to comprehend photo after photo of deserted buildings. We’re told Portsmouth is “a once-great city”, “desolate, hollowed out, with an aura of recent abandonment”. Ashton’s images “reveal urban exhaustion and impoverishment” in this “ghost town”.
After paging through the book I was at first disturbed, then annoyed. I wondered: is this really what Portsmouth is like now? Has it become a shell of its former self, with streets resembling the aftermath of a post-zombie apocalypse? Then slowly “photography” (as I’ve come to call almost anything that makes me step back) intervened; I began to question both the photographer’s intentions and my own perceptions. I wondered: how does my emotional proximity to this place affect my interpretation of this book?
John Berger posits that a photographer’s most basic message is often this: “The degree to which I believe this is worth looking at can be judged by all that I am willingly not showing because it is contained within it” (Understanding a Photograph, p26). As a photographer myself, I can relate to this. At the same time, I never forget the words of my mentor, Minor White: “One should not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are.”
What else are these photographs of Portsmouth? Are they metaphors for the decline of the middle class? Perhaps. At its face value, any photobook is a means of communicating a message. A viewer should be able to discern that message or at very least enter into the realm of the message’s vocabulary simply by looking at the photographs.
Places change. According to news reports, the Appalachian region of Ohio is suffering from an opioid and related health crisis of an unprecedented scale. But Ashton’s photos don’t tell me that. In his book, I see just this: abandoned buildings = decline and decay. I get it. But I could find the same views of dilapidated buildings and vacant storefronts in Houston or Detroit or LA. I no more know Portsmouth from these images than I would a hundred other cities.
There are people in southern Ohio that have suffered―I fully understand that. But I also know that in many of those same places people refuse to give up. I’m sure that somewhere in Portsmouth people are still raising families, going to work, or driving their kids to a baseball game. It’s their lives, if we could see them, that would tell the true story, no matter what some added text may say.
Over the next several years Susan and I got to know Pete and his family fairly well. I’d help him harvest the hay he planted in our field, and he’d help me with an old tractor that never ran more than a few days before breaking down again. Sometimes we’d all sit on his front porch drinking beers and telling stories about our lives.
He told me he liked living where he did because the outside world left him alone. He liked the quiet life of these Appalachian foothills, away from intrusions by government and others who might try to tell him what to do. In his mind, I was a city-kid, spoiled by too much education, and he frequently reminded me that reading books doesn’t pay the mortgage.
I saw him as what we then called a hillbilly, barely educated by my standards, and I jokingly mocked his Appalachian accent by reminding him to “holler at me up the holler” if he ever needed anything. In spite of our differences, we settled into an incongruent friendship that lasted throughout the five years I lived there.
I recognized Pete, or at least a proxy for him, in Matt Eich’s portraits of life in southeast Ohio. Eich, who also studied photography at Ohio University, spent most of a decade traveling around the back roads and small towns in the region, and his book is an elegy to that world.
Unlike Ashton, Eich chose to show both the places and the people who live in the area. He didn’t flinch from realities of hard times, but he chose to see something more than a surface level of despair. His images reflect the inconsistencies of life: loving families, people left behind, a landscape disfigured by greed, teenagers looking for something beyond their immediate world―all connected by place and anchored by generations of internal and external neglect.
Many of Eich’s photos show people living in daily hardship. It’s obvious that life is a real struggle for some, especially those already on the economic edges. But I couldn’t help thinking about what Pete told me many years ago, that he lived where he did because he wanted to be left alone. He said many times he’d have nothing to do with government handouts or other people telling him what to do. His philosophy was that when he was born God gave him most of what he needs to get by, and no amount of “book learning” would change that.
My dad and I visited Athens the last time I went back to Ohio, partly because I still had friends there and partly because we’d always liked to take road trips together. As we drove the back roads from Portsmouth to Athens, I gained a re-familiarity with those rolling hills. Proximity, the dictionary says, is nearness in place, time, occurrence, or relation. I felt all of those things in that landscape, and I could see them in the homes we passed as we drove.
Eich’s book, like southeast Ohio, is full of visual and visceral surprises. A water-covered highway. A refrigerator love note next to a photo of a dead deer. A giant strip mine. A boy holding his father’s ashes in a box topped by a taxidermy fighting rooster. Every page in the book is an invitation to experience a distinctive world, one both foreign to most people and at the same time strangely compelling.
From the beginning, I had a sense that I knew the people and places in his book, and I’m pretty sure I saw some of these same scenes played out when I lived there four decades ago. But I wasn’t prepared for what I saw midway through the book. On page 51, there’s a very dark image of massive trees roots, so dark the photo might have been taken at night with only a wisp of a moon to illuminate it. It doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the images in the book, and I wondered what Eich intended by including it.
Suddenly that image leaped off the page at me: I know these roots. Not “know” as in understanding their meaning; I mean “know” as in I’ve seen them before. In fact, I had a strong recollection that I’d photographed them. I went to my computer and searched through my archives. Due to a darkroom fire, I’d lost most of my photographs from when I was in school, but I still had a dozen or so images from a natural gem in southeastern Ohio called Hocking Hills State Park.
Within a few minutes, I found the image. Roots. Matt Eich’s roots. Except they were my roots. Out of the 2,400 acres of Hocking Hills spread over six separate park units Matt Eich and I had stumbled upon the exact same scene and photographed it in our own particular style. I just happened to have taken my photograph 46 years earlier than his.
Eich and I have never met, and I’ve never published my photo of the roots until now. The similarity of the two scenes is a coincidence, of course, although it’s a really interesting one. We both chose to photograph the same massive roots on the same huge boulders in the same natural refuge surrounded by an impoverished world — a world where we shared an unexpected attachment with the people who lived there.
Photographs, through what they imply, may suggest to a viewer a spontaneous proximity — a nearness that transcends physical or intellectual distance. But photographs themselves are only the provocateurs; they generate possibilities. When the possibilities interfere with our certainties, we begin an internal dialogue not only about what we’re seeing but also about what we’re experiencing.
My experience with Matt Eich’s photos has been bounded by serendipity. His photos speak to my past and my present, but through a distant lens. I see them for what they are, but also for what else they are. Roots. People. Places. Occurrences. Now, when I look at his book, I hear a voice asking me, “All them pictures real?”.