PDN Photo of the Day

A 1980s Study of Declining American Cities

In the 1980s, Jack D. Teemer, Jr. was making large format, Ektachrome photographs of cites in the Northeast and Midwest, at a time when their prominence as industrial centers was fading. Teemer’s work was included in the 1987 survey, American Independents: Eighteen Color Photographers, along with Joel Meyerowitz, Stephen Shore, and William Eggleston, but he passed away in 1992, cutting short a promising career while still in his early forties. “Jack D. Teemer, Jr.: Photographs from the American Rust Belt,” on view until March 31 at Joseph Bellows Gallery in La Jolla, California, collects 35 of his photographs, made between 1983 and 1988. Teemer photographed declining manufacturing cities, describing his work as a way of “exploring and examining the way people define their spaces through formal organization of color, object and shape relationship and detail. While acting as a form of environmental portraiture, they also serve as documents of changing and disappearing social traditions that are unique to each city.”

Teemer’s evocative landscapes reveal an eye for the color and texture of urban America. In them, the rust in the Rust Belt is sometimes literal, creeping over the densely packed bridges and train trestles that crisscrosses the images. In others, compressed, unpeopled spaces are crowded with tiny houses and telephone wires, fences and smokestacks, sometimes stacking elements right up to the top of the frame. (Teemer also made portraits of the residents of these cities, photographing them on their porches and in their front yards.) Writes The Museum of Contemporary Photography, which collects his work, “this density creates visual interest, as different patterns, colors, and forms overlap or collide, but it also adds an uneasy element of tension, preventing the eye from resting comfortably in one spot for too long.” That tension can also be attributed to the decline we sense in the steel plants and factories at the edges the frame, marking Teemer’s work as a study of the end of an era.

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