ohio/joachim brohm

From: Joachim Brohm: Ohio, Steidl Press, Gottinghen, Germany, 2009

The Heart of It All In the 1980s and Beyond

Most people think of Ohio as being part of the American Midwest, which in turn implies that the most distinct divide in the U.S. is East and West. As a linguistic remnant of American expansion across the continent, that is true. But East/West has never been the crucial axis in American geographical, cultural, or political life. That would be the North/South divide, the Mason-Dixon Line, the different group of states that made up the Union and the Confederacy. Atlanta is a lot more like Dallas than it is like New York. Using this axis, there are no “middle” states in either sense of the word, only border states.

Ohio is a border state. It’s also a strange, hybrid amalgam of North and South. Cleveland (North) is a city of European immigrants, factories, labor unions, and Northern liberal politics. Cincinnati (South) was a Copperhead city during the American Civil War, with a large population of Confederate sympathizers. It’s also a Mississippi River town full of Southern Appalacian transfers. Columbus, the city where most of these photographs were made, lies somewhere in between, with parts of both North and South in various relationships of harmonious hybridization or tense détente. Columbus then and now remains a city without a coherent or consistent identity, a city prone to shift allegiances, a city in which optimistic re-invention and cynical re-interpretation walk hand-in-hand. The Heart of It All is somehow perfect: not as the center of the United States, but as the embodiment of a shifting American identity that is as much a creation of imagination as of historical forces.

This is how that confusion over identity took shape one evening in July, 1983. I was watching the local TV news on the NBC affiliate: A young bright-eyed weatherman described on the sunny 85-degree weather: “Wonderful! Not a cloud in sight! A perfect weekend to catch some sun.” Flipping the channel, I just happened on the CBS weatherman, clearly depressed: “I’m sorry to report no rain for Central Ohio. We’re hoping some showers early next week can save the soybean crop, but that’s the only relief in sight at this time.” That’s Columbus, Ohio: neither and both: hot, sultry Atlanta summers; cold, snowy Boston winters. Home to that most American of all weather events; tornados. Columbus doesn’t look or feel like one place; it appears to be a lot of places. Perhaps that’s why Columbus was the market testing capital of the United States during the 1980s.

From the ground, Columbus reads a lot like a small town. There’s a main street: it’s called High Street. It runs the entire length of the city, setting up a straight  line of neighborhoods and institutions. Driving this one street you will encounter (in order): a noxious garbage dump and reprocessing plant (“the glue factory” of my childhood); poorer working-class (first white then black) South Side; German Village, once inhabited by Northern European immigrants, now model of gentrification; the Ohio State Capital building, set in the center of downtown; the Nationwide complex, home of Central Ohio’s largest employer; Short North, once called Flytown and home to blacks and Italian immigrants, now semi-gentrified bohemians; Ohio State University (more later); Clintonville, young families and students; Beechwold, semi-affluent urban families; and Worthington, an early suburb. These places also represent a strange array of historical periods, all of which seemed to have somehow survived into the present. You can see it all in perhaps 40 minutes by car. There is certainly more to Columbus than High Street, but still, as a cross-section of a mixed-up center stripe that turns one place into everybody under the sun across a neat North/South axis, it serves admirably.

Each of those nodes serves as the center its own little community, complete with the differences and cultural confusions present in the larger map of city, state, and country. But, importantly, each neighborhood served its own unique function.  In the1980s, the center of most art practice was Ohio State University, sitting on the west side of High Street surrounded by used bookstores, bars, and housing serving its 40,000 students. In terms of community, there was a modicum of diversity, not only in terms of skin color, gender preference, nationality, and ethnicity, but also in terms of cultural preferences. On Saturdays, you could hear the roar of home-game football crowds for several miles. It punctuated yard sales, record shops, political rallies, and bike rides. The High-Street buses carried hundreds of students into campus every Monday morning, and Friday night was TGIF from the frat bars on South Campus to Larry’s, home of the aesthetic and literary intelligentsia, further north. Summers the streets, shops, and bars were deserted and fall felt like midtown Manhattan at noon.

Ohio State was also the center of a certain photographic culture in Columbus. The Department of Photography and Cinema had recently hired a chair away from the National Endowment for the Arts named Ronald Green. He had in short order hired a string of superstars: Jonathan Green, Allan Sekula, and Thom Anderson, a filmmaker. Jonathan Green—a protégé of Minor White and an important historian and writer of the photography and thought of the 1950-70s—was a strange bedfellow for Sekula, a California-trained theoretical writer and documentary photographer. There were conflicts, terrific discussions, and piles and piles of books. Marxism, post structuralism, post modernism, close visual readings, and large cultural pronouncements chased each other around like leaves on a windy day. The Department of Photography and Cinema represented a unique moment: an amazing point of equilibrium between the previous assumptions guiding creative photographers and an emerging consensus. Like Columbus itself, it lacked identity, but due to that very fact, was able to create a completely fluid discursiveness, a cultural entity based on conversation and interpretation in which there were no fixed points. Instead, there was only a series of temporary constellations: everyone recognized them, but naming was up for grabs.

Luckily, the department represented only one center and one type of photographic culture in Columbus. The other center was older, more locally based, and distinctly down to earth. I call the set of ideas this group of individuals represents Shutterbug Culture. At the time, Shutterbug Culture underlay much professional commercial work: think of Weegee or Diane Arbus. Semi-obsessed with process and technology, Shutterbug Culture was also made up of the rich layer of amateur practitioners that has always provided photography with inspiration and crackpot appeal, full of the sort of people we now think of as nerds. Shutterbug culture peaked in the 1970s, when you could walk into a camera store and look through thousands of products by hundreds of small and large manufacturers. The home place of this culture in Columbus and Ohio was Midwest Camera Exchange, a used camera shop housed in a former church that carried everything from Sinar backs to Brownie cases to photo paper from Czechoslovakia. Bernie Mehl, an Professor of Education at OSU ran it with his sons. You can still check them out on the Web.

These two photographic cultures were situated less than a mile apart, within easy walking distance. Between them lay several used and new bookstores that were also crucial to the photographic discussion of the time. Columbus didn’t have even a small gallery system in the 1980s and photographic exhibitions were few and far between. The Internet had yet to appear. This meant that the actual material objects and the most crucial works under discussion were photographic books. Old ones were discovered in used bookstores, new ones were on display at the student bookstores. Directly or indirectly, books fueled the photographic dream, and in an important way, you could find the same volumes in the homes of shutterbugs and the classrooms of Ohio State.

I don’t think I could imagine a better time or place to be a graduate student. Think of an inspiring lecture by Jonathan Green on American Luminism followed by a fiery discussion of Rosalind Krauss in one of Allan Sekula’s seminars. Break for a sandwich at Bernie’s Bagels, where you might run into Allan Zack, a freelancer who had photographed the Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, and a shutterbug supreme. Over lunch the whole sick crew would discuss what had transpired in the morning. After losing and gaining various participants, a contingent would head off to Midwest Camera on foot. On the way, there would no doubt be a stop at Karen Wycliffe’s used bookstore to see if some copy of William Klein’s Rome had been misfiled in the travel section and marked at a ridiculously low price. By the time we got to the church, we were ready for the 45-minute debate (actually taken up from the previous week) attempting to resolve the better plack-and-white paper: Portriga Rapid or Ilford.

Between the bookstore and the church, there was an opportunity to photograph, especially in the alleys. For a large part of the year, the alleys in Columbus are overgrown paths complete with wildlife of all varieties (frogs, turtles, possum, etc), a history of American cars, old toys, drunken arguments, clubhouses, and all sorts of grimy, illicit, and wild activity. It was a world in which anything could and usually did happen, the backstreet to High Street’s Main Street. Not to forget High Street with its people on parade, store windows, and official presence. The amazing thing was the proximity of these two places and all the places in between. The density of experience and visual difference, the presence of different cultures, individuals, and even time periods, presented a rich set of photographic opportunities.

Of course there was more to the story and to the place: the stainless steel house where students critiqued work that had been hung on the walls with magnets (my father had worked on the house’s construction crew). Studio 35: the last art-house theater in Columbus; the rides into the country (in cars the size of tanks); Sunday pasta dinners, and the poverty of student life. Walking or driving, in school or stores, Columbus was full of photographs and conversations, the unidentified discursive terrain in which cultural geography, intellectual argument, and visual imagination found a way to create sums greater than totals of parts. You could find everything in Ohio in Columbus during those years and everything in America in Ohio: One country in the continuous process of becoming another, reflected in a cultural discussion of historical magnitude.

By definition, this temporary autonomous zone didn’t last, either for the country, for the city, or for the cultural discussion embodied in the classrooms, camera stores, and living rooms of Ohio photographers. The first change came in the person of Ronald Reagan. It wasn’t only his repudiation of the commonality of purpose represented by government (possibly its major purpose), it was also his desperation for a single, unitary American identity. Distrustful of the North and in thrall to the worst tendencies of the South, Reagan turned the cultural landscape into a cultural minefield.

At a certain point, you could feel curiosity turning to suspicion simply by walking down High Street, moving from one part of town to another. Eventually that became one house to another. The Department of Photography and Cinema became one of the first skirmishes of the Culture Wars.  A Chair was deposed, contracts went unrenewed, and, in a strange repeat of the flight from 1930s Germany, Jonathan Green, Sekula, and Andersen found themselves regaled in the California educational matrix. Think of this as history repeating itself as American intellectual farce. Everyone survived, but the discursive cloud of Ohio had given way to the oppressive buckets of Middle America.

And so it goes…Ohio is less The Heart of It All, and increasingly a key battleground state in a country of red and blue. Four-dollar-per-gallon gasoline is here to stay. Kodak has discontinued most of its photo-chemical products. Funny thing: I’m not nostalgic. Even though Shutterbug Culture has disappeared in form, its spirit lives on in digital technology fueled by similar dreams of democratization and the irrepressible energy of crackpot amateur savants/nerds. There is a new and passionate discussion over photographic representation, truth, and power with no end in sight. To me, that feels a lot like Ohio in the ‘80s minus the crazy power of gas-guzzling V-8 engines. The trick is to understand that both then and now the real Ohio exists in the discussion, in the not-yet-but-maybe, in the confusion, terror, and promise of malleable identity. To paraphrase the current genius of imaginary states Fox Muldur: Ohio is out there. The only question is: where?