Foreword to 2nd Stories (copyright Michael Atwood 2005)
While looking at some of the images you're about to see in John Bower's youngest book, 2nd Stories: A Hoosier photographer explores what's upstairs, on top, and overhead, I was reminded of a time when I was videotaping rural settings in southern Indiana. The audio guy and I had spent the previous day feasting our eyes, and camera, on a veritable farm dinner-table heaped with rustic barns settled amidst picturesque fields and pastures-enough to satisfy a big, hard-working family, and even the Parson, should he happen by.
But come Breakfast time, early next morning, my visual taste buds were hankering for a scene that was a little different. So we jostled off, along old asphalt back roads, then bounced onto the dusty roar of gravel. The production van rumbled around a few more snaky curves and then-Behold!
Patiently waiting all these years. Growing, changing. Often overlooked and, eventually, forgotten. But now, simply perfect, as the early morning sun crept toward those few brief moments photographers graciously call the "magic hour." A special span of time, when the sun is a most friendly and loving source of illumination.
I gazed in glee at our discovery, and it was a good one, just on the other side of a rusty farm fence that had probably spent the last 20 years in retirement. No farm building was in sight, but we had passed one, maybe a tenth-of-a-mile back. If someone didn't want us around, they'd let us know. We got our gear and headed toward a most scrumptious find.
As we videotaped, on this gorgeous late summer morning, we soon heard the steady putt-putt of a tractor engine drawing near. A moment later, it rounded a curve and rolled into view. The farmer at the wheel looked like he had just steered that tractor right off the cover of Farm Bureau Magazine. He was sporting comfortable blue coveralls, and a cap that proudly proclaimed the superiority of a particular brand of seed. His gaze was aged with furrows of experience.
He didn't mind we were there, but he certainly was puzzled. Why were we so interested in his old forgotten trash heap of abandoned cars and farm machinery?
I tried to explain. The heritage and the metaphor. The goals and the dreams-both real and forgotten-that this big ol' heap of rusting metal symbolized.
He removed his hat and scratched his head-a clear sign of impending prophesy in these parts. A rural sage, he proceeded
"Seems to me there's just lots purt'yer things to be takin' pictures of. But suit yerselves. Jess be careful." Then he settled back, put the tractor back into gear, and disappeared around the next bend.
I imagine John Bower has had similar experiences in his travels-folks rubbing their chins in contemplation, wondering why this fellow is so interested in this particular fire escape, that particular chimney.
John Bower's newest book continues his love of exploration, paying close attention to the everyday stuff of life-stuff that often escapes attention. In this collection, he encourages all to simply lift their gaze a bit and discover a magnificent world we seldom notice-a place between sky and ground, where we find second stories.
The images in 2nd Stories reveal a deep curiosity for the otherwise forgotten and overlooked. In these pages, you'll discover another world, one that is still, quite simply, our world. A universe of the intricate and the simple, often residing, virtually ignored, right over our heads, or just out of sight: the dove-white detail of a church steeple, the patient strength of framed timbers in a dusty loft, the doily-carved cornice of a Victorian home.
There is a keen awareness in 2nd Stories to a common, yet lovely, human experience. Imagine walking down a street, or driving through a city or town, your mind full of appointments, to-do lists, dinner plans, and dreams of winning the Lottery. As you walk, or maybe rest momentarily at a stoplight, your gaze, so briefly, looks up. You are, basically, just staring off into space, as your mind mulls and churns the vast complexities of your life.
You lift your gaze from this river of activities, for just the briefest of breaths. Then it happens. Maybe it's a gargoyle statue peering out from atop the library. Or the way the light is hitting the old water tower just that instant.
Suddenly, you find yourself distracted from the noisy babble, just long enough to actually see something-for the very first time! You experience a jeweled moment of new discovery, before the light changes and you must drive away. John Bower has captured this simple, yet revelatory, experience-again and again—in 2nd Stories.
Places seldom seen, like an attic, have a life beyond our gaze. But we hold an unspoken, yet certain, faith that they'll always be right there, just above us, supporting the roof over our heads-as well as a couple old bowling balls gathering dust, next to the boxes of Christmas decorations. Faith, after all, is a deep belief in the certain reality of the unseen.
John takes us to typically unseen places, with a remarkable faith in their beauty. At first glance, you might think he's only there to observe quietly. But these ordinary observations inspire extraordinary journeys-to hear the stories these spaces tell, paradoxically sharing their rich past even as they affirm their eventual decay.
Other spaces delight in having found a continued, or even a surprisingly new, existence with another generation, their heritage a quiet backdrop to brand new dreams. John's work may capture a singular moment, but in this moment, he tenderly cradles past, present, and future.
2nd Stories also offers the only opportunity many of us will ever have of seeing the normally unseen superstructures of places ranging from county courthouses to downtown businesses. Ever wonder what was in the upper recesses of your local fraternal lodge? Well, you just might find out, in 2nd Stories.
John Bower reminds us that the rare beauty of everyday life waits just outside the fringes of our attention. Discovering this dimension is as easy as lifting our eyes to a second-story window. A focused attention, on the often overlooked things around us, is both prayer and meditation to John Bower. John invites us to raise our gaze-and pay attention.
Michael Atwood Host of "Across Indiana" August 2005