Lingering Spirit: A photographic tribute to Indiana's fading, forlorn, and forgotten places
PHOTOGRAPHY by John Bower, FOREWORD by Judy O'Bannon
Motivation and inspiration for creating Lingering Spirit
Ever since my wife, Lynn, and I met back in 1972, as first-year teachers in Kendallville, we’ve gone for drives in the country. We simply enjoyed the adventure of not knowing what we’d come across on a road we’d never driven down before. Then, around 2000, I began taking my new camera along on our excursions—a medium-format model, loaded with black-and-white film—and started shooting what interested me. Back home, I’d develop my film in a newly constructed darkroom I’d built in our lower level. One day, while viewing some of my prints—which consisted mostly of abandoned objects and buildings—Lynn suggested we create a book of my photographs. While I’d not thought of it before, I quickly agreed.
Soon, she and I decided that we’d travel down every road in ten south-central Indiana counties, looking for the fading, forlorn, and forgotten relics that had been left behind by earlier Hoosiers. With ten county maps in hand, we covered thousands of miles, photographing poignant scenes of discarded vehicles, closed-up stores, and long-empty farmsteads. These places, and the resulting images, moved me deeply, as I know they will move you. They constitute a history of everyday Indiana, of lives and places that are rarely acknowledged or honored—but should be.
Lingering Spirit is OUT-OF-PRINT and no longer available.
One afternoon, as Lynn and I were driving along a gravel road in southern Indiana, looking for something to take pictures of, she asked, “Why don’t we publish a book of your photographs?”
We’ve both always made decisions quickly so, within minutes, we were committed to publishing an Indiana photography book. In order to keep the project to a manageable size, I suggested we concentrate on a specific geographical area, which we eventually defined as 10 south-central counties, which contained Indiana’s beautiful hill country. They ranged from Monroe (around Bloomington) to Bartholomew (around Columbus) all the way down Perry, Crawford, and Harrison along the Ohio River.
Each time we were ready to explore a new county, we’d go to its Courthouse and get a map, which ranged in price from free to two dollars. We hoped to explore at least 90% of the roads in our territory, and I dug a bright pink felt-tip marker from the back of a drawer to highlight the roads on our maps as we went. Lynn and I had been going for rides since the day we met (back in 1972), and now we found ourselves doing so in a semi-orderly manner.
With so many highways, back roads, dead-end roads, gravel roads, paved roads, and dirt roads to travel, we had no idea how much time our new project would take. Because neither of us liked deadlines, we figured we’d simply publish the book after the last road was highlighted in pink. Some days, we’d decide while we ate breakfast that the weather looked good, and take off. At other times, we’d plan to head in a certain direction a day or two in advance, based on the weatherman’s prediction. We’d explore a corner of one county, then part of another, without any specific agenda. It just depended on which direction struck us. Sometimes we headed out 3 or 4 days in a single week but, during other weeks, we stayed home. We had no leads, so it was 100% exploration.
As I drove, Lynn would keep a sharp eye out for subjects, so I could keep my eyes on the winding, up-and-down roads. Whenever we stopped, she kept notes in a small spiral-bound pad, jotting down the general location of everything I photographed. We might drive for an hour or two, without seeing anything worth shooting then, suddenly, we’d spot a decrepit barn, abandoned house, or closed-up store. One morning, I’d only taken a couple of pictures when we rounded a corner and saw a dilapidated farmhouse in rural Jackson Co. “There it is,” I said, “that’s the cover photo.” It was a two-story frame structure, leaning about 10 degrees to the left, missing pieces of siding and roofing. The windows and doors were gone, and it was flanked by a pair of dead trees. I pulled into the drive of a ranch house next door, knocked, and asked the young woman if it was ok to take a few pictures. She said to go ahead, so I hopped a fence, climbed the hill, and snapped 10 images from different angles. A treadle sewing machine, hanging out of the upstairs window, gave the old place a human touch. A few months later, when I heard the house had fallen down, Lynn and I knew how important our work was. The buildings I was photographing were disappearing every day.
It was intriguing to find an abandoned house still containing furniture or with clothes hanging in the closets, a barn housing an ancient steel-wheeled tractor, or an old wood stove in a closed-up business. We found all sorts of interesting things left behind: canning jars, a beat-up typewriter, a magnificent Home Comfort cook stove, wringer washing machines, a rusting Toledo scales on a front porch, a piano sitting forlornly on a different porch, stacks of books in an empty two-room schoolhouse.
We also discovered hand-made wooden corn cribs, retired farm wagons, a gas pump showing 29.9¢ per gallon, forsaken railroad bridges, a decrepit interurban trolley car, vacant general stores, a dilapidated railroad station, the quarry (partially filled with water) which had supplied the limestone for the Empire State Building, a cluster of beehive-shaped brick-making kilns, saws and milling machines in obsolete limestone mills, spike-topped wrought-iron cemetery fences, even an observatory (minus telescope) that had been walked away from decades earlier.
Lynn and I felt that many of these sites were hallowed ground, because they were memorials to lives lived. As I shot, she would search out details I’d missed that also needed to be recorded. We enjoyed finding an old pickup truck parked along a fence row, left behind by someone who couldn’t part with it; two aging Chevies, nestled together like buddies; and worn-out fire trucks, one of which disappeared not long after I photographed it.
When we first started, we ate lunch at small-town restaurants in places like French Lick, or English, or Brownsburg. Occasionally, we’d find a general store in a tiny burg such as Huron and Ft. Ritner, where the proprietor would make us turkey-and-cheese sandwiches on wheat bread. But, because we often found ourselves in the middle of nowhere when noon rolled around, we began taking our lunch with us. Either Lynn would make sandwiches the night before, or we’d stop and pick up something in the morning to put in our cooler. We regularly pulled through the gate of a country cemetery for a quiet place to eat—and I’d often take pictures of the markers before we left.
Lynn’s always been good with book titles, and it didn’t take her long to come up with Lingering Spirit: a celebration of Indiana's fading, forlorn, and forgotten places.
When Lynn and I had covered about half the roads in our 10 counties, I learned about a grant program at the Indiana Arts Commission that would provide an artist with cash for a career-enhancing project. I’d picked up grant-writing through a job I had a number of years earlier, so I downloaded an application from the IAC’s website, and started filling in the blanks. Then Lynn went over it to polish my words. Then I went over it again. We always do this with our writing, and typically pass something back and forth 4 or 5 times before we’re happy with the result. After a several-month waiting period, I was pleased to learn I’d receive $1,000 (the maximum amount) toward publishing Lingering Spirit.
When the end of shooting was in sight, we talked about who might write the Foreword. Several names came up, but we only seriously considered one—Judy O’Bannon. She was Indiana’s First Lady at the time, and we knew she had a deep interest in our State’s history, as well as the Arts. But we’d never met her, and she certainly didn’t know either of us. When I contacted her Press Secretary, he suggested I mail some sample photos, and a description of the book for Mrs. O’Bannon to look over. After seeing my package, she quickly agreed to contribute the Foreword. After I received it (via email), I read it aloud to Lynn, and we were both in tears by the time I reached the end. Her words were absolutely beautiful, and they perfectly captured my mission, which she described as “an exploration of the soul of a people.”