David Plowden

Gazette Article by: Barbara Joyce
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall 1996

“…Remembrance of Things Passing”

Because our kinetic lives are filled with noise and color and confusion, the black and white still photograph provides the best way to see the world.  This is the opinion of David Plowden, photographer and writer of national distinction and Winnetka resident since 1978.

Plowden has traveled across America to find the subjects for his 19 books.  With titles like Steel, A Time of Trains, Small Town America, and End of an Era, Plowden’s books depict a transforming American scene.  He describes many of his pictures as “one step ahead of the wrecking ball.”  In a recent interview Plowden said, “My life has been spent photographing changes in our culture.”

Born in 1932, he began photographing at age eleven.  He took a picture of a steam engine with a Brownie reflex camera given to him by his mother.  He spent the next 15 years photographing trains, for the simple reason that he loved locomotives.  Then they began disappearing.

“I began to realize that things vanish,” he said.  It is not only the tools of the industrial age, he believes, but the fabric of our society that is eroding.  “Wal-Mart has taken over Main Street,” said Plowden.  “I’m really trying to show what Wal-Mart has destroyed.  We all know what these marts have done—even here in Winnetka.”  He worries that we are losing our sense opf place and community.

He wants people “to look at things they haven’t seen.”  Through his lens, a locomotive is “sublime” and a bridge “like a great piece of music.”  When describing himself, Plowden eschewed the term “documentary photographer.” He has, he explained, “a different point of view.”

To achieve clarity and sharpness in his pictures, Plowden uses a tripod and Hasselblad camera. He prefers black and white film, which he considers archival and abstract. “You can control black and white absolutely, within an inch of your life. There’s very little control in color.”

His books contain photographs of farms, bridges, steel mills, and streets. Plowden sees beauty in the ordinary: grain elevators, funeral homes, post offices, and industrial parks. His pictures reflect an American landscape that is usually ignored and often forgotten.

“I have photographed a great deal for the next generation,” he said. In fact, future generations will have access to Plowden’s work through the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. In 1996 the library announced it will acquire his negatives, prints, field notebooks, and records for the Yale Collection of Western Americana.

In his work, David Plowden celebrates the achievements of the modern world. At the same time, he sounds a distress call for its pace and transformation.

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