July – August 2011 About The Cover
Longer ago than I care to admit, I made my one and only visit to North Dakota. I blew through Fargo and Bismarck, headed for the Badlands and Montana. The interstate was only two lanes then, there were almost no cars, and the speed limit was optional. Made sense to me, since there was absolutely no reason to slow down. Or so I thought. I wish I’d had Jim Dow in the car with me. North Dakota was where he made some of his best early photographs, and I have a pretty good idea how it would have gone: “Hey, did you see that motel? Pull over! It’s a beautiful sign. The people that run this joint really want us to stop.” Probably we’d have wound up in a place like the Terrace Lounge in Carrington, and Dow’s eye would have lit on the wall mural of a dance hall from a bygone time, with a woman in a red dress. “Open your eyes, man, it may not be the Sistine Chapel but it’s pretty great.” Dow brings his unique American travelogue to the Janet Borden Gallery (through July 29) in an exhibition titled American Studies, and though it may not be obvious from the cover image (Arthur Bryant’s Bar-b-q, Kansas City MO., 2002), we can see clearly what has separated Dow from his contemporaries and made him the essential traveling companion. Like Stephen Shore, Len Jenshel, Mitch Epstein, William Eggleston, Joel Sternfeld, and others who have rendered America in color, Dow has an insatiable appetite for the vernacular, from french fries to phone booths. But Dow seems always willing to linger a bit longer. He’s never ironic or distant and, as Borden points out, “He is patient, often using exposures of 15 minutes. His photographs release their information slowly.” Dow himself suggests, “Perhaps because I grew up without a television, I’m not just watching. I’m looking.” Dow’s meditation on America has lasted four decades and yielded the newly published American Studies (powerHouse Books). He lingers, of course, because he loves, and what he loves is passing away. It goes beyond nostalgia for fading murals and pink lunch counters to a reverence for every manifestation of what has been made by hand, with care and imagination. His America beautifies beyond all entrepreneurial necessity, expends labor for no corporate reward, seeks ecstasy in motel neon (and not just motel romance) and paints a trail-tested cowboy on the wall of a tire store. It expresses itself. Which brings us to that sandwich and fries in the cover image. Yes, the sandwich is made with Wonder bread, a symbol of the cultural homogenization Dow deplores, but look at the size of it, and that mountain of fries! They didn’t come out of any frozen food case. Whoever ran Arthur Bryant’s decided that if people wanted to eat, he was darn well going to feed them. “Barbecue is one of the few things that changes from place to place,” adds Dow. “It has personality that hasn’t been squashed.” Pull over, Jim. What say we stop here?