Random Camera Blog: Photographic Echoes

Did you ever visit a place, take some photos, and then only later realize the significance of that place in regards to another photographer’s body of work?  It’s not like going to, say, Yosemite, fully aware of Ansel Adams’ photographic legacy.  Nor is it like going to New York City, that has been the subject of many photographers.  How about a “small town”?  

First, a little back story.  I have been slowly working on a project about US-23, aka “The Dixie Highway” that stretches from the tip of the lower peninsula of Michigan, through Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and ends in Jacksonville, FL.  I’ve done a fair amount of photography along the way, especially in Michigan and Ohio.  I’ve yet to finish the route from NC to FL. Yet, US-23 runs not far past my house in NC, where it shares the road with I-26 and US-19, so I’m always aware of that unfinished journey.

Hopefully, a project that I’ll finish

This past April, I was traveling from a photo gathering in Cleveland back to my home in Weaverville, so I took US-23south, and stopped in Portsmouth, Ohio, which I had been through before.  This time, I stopped to walk around and do some photography – with some examples, as seen below.  It’s obvious that Portsmouth was once a more robust place that had fallen on hard times, but is rebounding now, typical of a lot of previous industrial towns along the Ohio River and in the so-called rust belt.  I’ve been through a few of them, and while some will probably not escape more decline, others will persevere and improve.  Portsmouth seems to be in the “improving” stage, and is also positioned in a place where hiking, boating, and other outdoor activities will attract people.  

As I walked around with my camera, it was obvious that towns like Portsmouth have a lot of history, and my feeble attempt with a camera for a few hours was not going to be enough to reveal much of it.  If anything, the flood wall with the murals on the city side was ample evidence of a storied past.  Just as the flood wall is also evidence of the existential threat of the mighty Ohio, it’s also a reminder that people have overcome many obstacles to create a community.

Something nagged at me though, as if I had read something about Portsmouth or a town along the Ohio River before.  Last week, I realized what that was.  Mary Ellen Mark’s photographs in Life Magazine in September, 1989. “Growing Up at 215 Washington Street, Portsmouth, Ohio.”  I had taken photos of that article with my cell phone when I was visiting my wife’s family in Amenia, NY in 2016.  The text, written by Peter Meyer, is direct, unflinching, and a damning indictment of a country that was ruined by Reaganomics during the 1980s.   It’s always the kids that suffer.   The fact that it was someplace in the middle of the country, and a white family possibly made it connect more to the readers.  Had it been a Black family, would there have been anything other than the usual put-downs by the readers?  This excerpt encapsulates the point of the story:

“The children of 215 Washington Street—Chuck, Mike, Jenifer and Tiffany; Carrie, Mike, Jeff and Jamie—are not alone. At last count 13 million American children were growing up poor—one in every five. Since 1969 child poverty rates have risen from 14 to 20 percent, adding three million more youngsters—enough to populate a city the size of Chicago. From the children at 215, we can get an idea of what it is like to grow up poor in America in 1989. Like most American poor children, they are white, they do not live in a metropolitan area, their parents don’t own a house, and their family’s income is less than what the federal government says is necessary to survive.”

The 1989 article in Life

1989 Life article

The old tenement 215 Washington Street is now gone, and that series of lots, once nothing but grass, is now seeing rebuilding going on.  I checked through Google maps for previous years, and I suspect that the crappy old apartment building was torn down in the 1990s.  I found this really good article from Ohio Humanities dated 2022, that has some good commentary about that 1989 Life article.  Amanda Page offers up her recollection, and it’s a very important follow up.

2022 Google Maps View of 215 Washington St

2019 View of 215 Washington St

Mary Ellen Mark was an astute photographer, and she exposed the plights of the poor and disenfranchised, especially women.  Her photographs for this article are echoes of Walker Evans’ images of the sharecroppers and their families in Hale Co., Alabama.  So, I guess this story has several echoes, not just one.

After reading that story again, I have to wonder how those kids turned out.   1989 wasn’t that long ago.  Just 34 years.   

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