Getting to the heartland
Photographer and writer Raymond Bial wanted to photograph the people of small town America and in particular the quiet places of central Illinois. I think he succeeded admirably though I have reservations about his style of photography and also the production of the book.
Bial traveled to all the towns in central Illinois with populations from under a hundred to a few thousand and selected those that still retained the small town ambiance he was looking for. The rural America he captured is fast disappearing. He undertook this assignment in the late eighties so many of the places in these photos have probably got smaller though even after a couple of decades I doubt that they have disappeared completely.
In his Preface Bial says that he preferred to photograph people looking at the camera, he felt it was a more natural and honest way to capture individuals and looking through the eighty-five mono photos everybody seems at ease with the situation and also I felt this reflected their contentment with small town life. However in many of the photos, especially those inside stores, this format seems a bit contrived. Had store owners and others done what they normally do I feel it would have made a much more animated photograph. Surely, where there are two people featured it would have been more natural to have them relating to each other and the camera capturing the moment. Page after page of everyone looking at the camera has a slightly off-putting feel to the work.
All the photos feature individuals posing inside or outside buildings. Missing are any photos of Main Streets to give a sense of location. Four or five photos of town exteriors would have nicely broken up the flow of portraits.
What would really have given this fascinating book a lift would have been better reproduction. The photos are only printed with a 150 screen when they deserve 200 or 250 dpi to bring out the detail and depth that is in so many of them. Better still they should be printed as duotones on a matt art so they can really sparkle. Small Town America (PC): The Missouri Photo Workshops 1949-1991 though printed with a 175 screen has better paper and it shows in the photos. Both books cover the same theme but photographically go about it in a different ways.
'Stopping by' captures beautifully a passing America thanks to the vision of Raymond Bial. It's slightly unfortunate that the book doesn't quite deliver the vision one hundred per cent.
Two books covering the same theme. The Missouri Photo Workshop has a more varied presentation and much better reproduction.
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