Preface to Lingering Spirit

This book project didn't start out as a project at all. Instead, it evolved—rather slowly—as a result of taking rides in the country. Throughout our marriage, my wife, Lynn, and I have spent much of our leisure time driving on back roads in various parts of the Midwest. For us, discovering something interesting and unforeseen around the next bend has provided a great deal of enjoyment. During many of our early years together, I didn't take a camera with me. Then, one day, I simply decided to put my camera in the car whenever we left home. So, we'd head off for an afternoon drive, see a picturesque scene or building, and I'd stop to photograph it. For a long time, both the driving and the photography were quite random.

After a while, I found that I was photographing more and more machinery, buildings, vehicles, and man-made structures that were decaying, worn-out, or abandoned—objects that were once the pride of their owners and their age, but were now well past their prime. Upon seeing some of these images for the first time, a friend asked "Why are you taking so many pictures of things that are falling apart?"

At first, I couldn't answer her question. But I soon understood that I was recording on film more than the visible, physicality where lives had been lived. I was being drawn to the energy of the individuals whose lives had once been intertwined with the buildings and other objects. So, for me, there are people in these images—it's just that they can no longer be seen.

As a result, I believe my photographs are more than simple snapshots. They are memorials, tributes, and monuments to the lives of the people who moved on—the homeowners, equipment operators, builders, employers, employees, families—those who have left some of themselves in the remains of their now-cast-aside possessions. I often wonder about these people. What happened to the women who raised their families, canned vegetables, and sewed quilts in that now-empty farm house? What about the men who worked in that dilapidated factory? Who was the original owner of that rusted-out pickup truck? What happened to the masons who built that one-room schoolhouse, and the children who sat at its desks? I know I could talk to neighbors, track down relatives, research old newspaper clippings, or visit historical societies, and get some of the answers. But, without a doubt, those answers would be incomplete. They couldn't possibly tell the entire story or, perhaps, even the most important story.

So, without knowing the specific details of a place, I record what I see and what I feel. Some of my subjects are historically or architecturally significant, others are quite ordinary. Some evoke a warm sense of nostalgia, some are stark and sad. But my subjects were all central, vital, and dynamic to someone. They are a record of the spirit that has been left behind. In fact, they are a record of the true history of South-Central Indiana—the history of the day-to-day lives of ordinary people.

The Roman poet Ovid said time was "the devourer of all things." Even though our contemporary buildings and machines will also eventually turn to dust, I can't imagine them ever having the dignity of a forlorn country church with no congregation, or a battered and rusted tractor no longer able to plow. To me, that which was built many decades ago often retains a presence, a vitality—a spirit—that's rarely found in today's complex, plastic-infested society. It's this soulful, aging, built environment I am compelled to record on film—before it's completely devoured by time. Actually, some of my subjects are already gone. In some cases they were razed and hauled away the day after I shot them.

On one of our many rides in the country, Lynn and I casually discussed the possibility of assembling my photographs into a book. Even though the idea remained somewhat nebulous, we started going for drives with the specific purpose of taking pictures. Over time, as the project started to gel, then solidify, a title became apparent, and we decided to definitely publish a book. But in order to keep it to a manageable size, we would limit it to photos taken in ten specific counties in South-Central Indiana—Bartholomew, Brown, Crawford, Harrison, Jackson, Lawrence, Monroe, Orange, Perry, and Washington (see the map on page 141). While all the photos on these pages were taken in these particular counties, my subjects are often so typically Midwestern that many are reminiscent of locales in Indiana's other 82 counties.

Once we had a definite goal in mind, I obtained maps for each of my chosen ten counties, and Lynn and I started marking off the roads we covered. Eventually, when the weather was agreeable, we drove 90% of the paved roads, unpaved roads, and dead-end roads on my maps—almost 15,000 miles—seeking "fading, forlorn, and forgotten places" to photograph. All the images in this book were taken over a three-and-a-half-year period between 2000 and 2003.

About midway through the project, I applied for an Individual Artist Grant from the Indiana Arts Commission to help publish my book. After their jurying process was complete, I was pleased to be awarded a $1,000 grant—not nearly enough to actually pay for publication costs, but a nice check nonetheless. I thank them very much for their support. I'd also like to thank Judy O'Bannon for writing such a heartfelt Foreword, and Lynn, my wife, lover, and best friend, who is responsible for the actual design of the book, who wrote the essay on South-Central Indiana, and who is my most-valued critic.

For many years I used a Minolta 35-mm camera of average quality, but for this project I purchased a Mamiya 645 medium-format camera. This camera produces negatives that are 60 mm x 45 mm—somewhat larger than a 35-mm camera's 35 mm x 24 mm negatives—so it yields sharper enlargements. When photographing buildings I often use a shift lens (also called a perspective-control lens), which can be adjusted to remove any vertical distortion (keystoning) caused by perspective. I almost always use a tripod.

I tend to use Ilford FP-4+ film, but have also used Kodak T-Max (100 speed) film, and I process the film myself in a conventional wet darkroom that I installed in our home. I also do my own printing—on Ilford Multigrade RC paper—and generally treat my prints with a sulfide toner. Toning helps preserve the prints, and it produces a slight sepia (brownish) coloration which I believe is in keeping with the subject matter.

I'm often asked why I don't use a digital camera and an ink-jet printer. The answer is that I have nothing against digital photography, I simply prefer using conventional film and working in a darkroom. Similarly, I have nothing against color film, it's just that I prefer black-and-white. Showing less (black, white, and tones of gray, rather than a rainbow of thousands of colors) helps me get to the essence of my subjects.

Over the course of photographing the counties of South-Central Indiana, I shot nearly two hundred rolls of film. Together, Lynn (an accomplished artist) and I had a difficult time selecting the specific photographs for these pages because there were just so many compelling images to choose from. In laying out the book, I decided on an organization starting with homes, then buildings associated with livelihood, followed by means of transportation, and finally ending with images reflecting the larger community.

I've purposely not listed specific locations for my photographs—for several reasons. First of all, many of my subjects are on private property, and I don't want to encourage trespassing. Also, I quickly learned that the road names shown on signs (when there were signs) were sometimes different from the road names on my maps, so I probably couldn't give an accurate location if I wanted to. And, finally, Lynn and I found it most enjoyable to serendipitously discover interesting places on our own, accidentally, without any inkling of what would be around the next curve in the road. So, we'd like to encourage others to take a destinationless, meandering drive through Southern Indiana to see where it leads them.

John Bower