Mimi Plumb, The Golden City

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Stanley/Barker (here). Hardcover, unpaginated, with 64 black and white reproductions. There are no texts or essays included. Design by Entente. (Cover and distribute the plans below.)

Comments/Background: As more and more previously overlooked or marginalized photographers are rediscovered, we as viewers are challenged to grapple with temporal dislocations of unexpected nuances. Artists new to us are presented via their old work, creating a retrograde sense of nostalgia and dissonance. It’s as if we encounter these artists upside down, with the usual order of their artistic careers thrown into the wind, often upsetting any sense of linear progression. With one foot in the present and one in the past, we use our contemporary eyes to go back to viewpoints and artistic perspectives formed years earlier, while trying to assess how to re-insert these new discoveries into the ever-changing timeline. of art history.

Over the past six years, California photographer Mimi Plumb has embarked on a promising ascent down the difficult path of rediscovery. In 2018, his “first” photo book Landing (for a photographer now in her late 60s) introduced us to her work from the early 1980s, and the excitement around this imagery has since spawned new research. It was soon followed by the 2020 Photobook The white sky (reviewed here), which goes back even further in time, to the mid-1970s and the early years of Plumb in suburban Walnut Creek. The golden city keeps the archival reveal going, now rushing to the mid-1980s and beyond in San Francisco. And as evidence of her growing momentum and renewed interest in her work, her release earlier this year roughly coincided with the announcement of a 2022 Guggenheim Fellowship for Plumb.

The golden city is largely set in in-between San Francisco, a few years before the Internet-fueled tech boom of the mid-1990s engulfed Silicon Valley and began to aggressively transform the city. From Plumb’s perspective, the signs of lingering decay at that time were unmistakable, and her images from those years mix a sense of unbearable fragility and frustration with a repeated pattern of looking away, as if searching for answers or just a distraction.

Plumb’s all-encompassing portrait of life in the city begins with a series of photographs that offer a quietly somber view of its environmental realities. The dusty rocky hills look ready to crumble, and the one framing a distant view of the city already has a deep gash in its side; in 1989, the city would be rocked by a devastating earthquake, and these anxiety-provoking images remind us that fears of geological tremors in the Bay Area were (and still are) true. Another selection of images frames the metropolis using the overflowing piles of dumps; planes fly overhead and huge industrial plants linger in the distance, while the foreground is covered in mounds of cardboard debris and scraps, including an incongruous TV console that seems eager to communicate but remains empty and silent. Still other images create intentionally interrupted views of the land, with spindly sticks lying in front of the beach and dead weeds rising to veil a wagon. An old tire covered in what looks like dried seaweed looks like a suitably ugly symbol of the moment, and a young girl curled up on a blanket in an otherwise brushy area feels small and vulnerable, given the ever-elegant elegance of photos of Plumb.

As the pages turn, poles and wires begin to appear, crossing vistas and connecting to layers of geometric houses in the foreground. These wires, including one that conveniently intersects a cat perched atop a roof, then give way to seemingly endless freeways that wind through the city, in one case the dark, towering flyovers that dwarf a house below. . Destruction is never far from sight, in the form of a demolished building (with a Mercedes sedan parked in front to balance the action), strands of rebar and concrete hanging near a crane, and the smoldering ruins of a charred building with a fireman still cutting down the remnants of the blaze. Even when new construction looks optimistically poised to step in, Plumb sees it as hollow decor, with rungs supporting a wall that seems flimsy.

Through The golden city, when people (and pets) appear, they almost always look away, out of frame. A man standing atop the piles of trash looks beyond what we can see, as does a group of people huddled near a broken down car. The same can be said for a smoking woman in cowboy boots (looking languidly at something off camera), a man in a dark blazer (who we see from behind) looking through a chain-link fence, and various people who climbed trees and crosswalk lights to watch what is presumably a parade. A series of images captures a man, woman and two younger people (possibly a family) in various loosely posed configurations, where the man in particular is looking over his shoulder while seated on top of a roof (near of a surreal billboard with a fist holding cash), turns away as he stands on another rooftop, looks upwards from a rooftop sofa, then is seen later looking up down while kissing the woman; in each case, his attention seems to have been momentarily diverted to something more intriguing than his immediate surroundings.

Around the middle of the book, communication in the city begins to take the form of graffiti, with enigmatic messages ranging from the outright political (Dump Reagan) to the more caustically pessimistic (No Future and Man Made Pain Deadly Rain). But then even the graffiti decays into incomprehensibility, leading to the barricaded doors and stuffy windows of a city closing in on itself. The image of an empty broken heart seems to be the poignant moment when Plumb’s mood hits its lowest point.

Much of the rest of The golden city moves to the nocturnal exits from the daily routine, following the movements of various characters through the darkness of the night. Again the motif of looking and looking away is repeated, this time with a man in leather lederhosen (with headjacks like Neo from The matrix), another in a tuxedo and eye mask (like Eyes wide closed), and a woman dressed as a sexy masked nurse with a stethoscope. The venues Plumb has frequented look rough and ready, with broken doors, makeshift decor, scavenged seats and loose trash strewn about, with random dancing, pool games and relaxed drinking at unnamed hours of the night. But by the end of the night, the buzz has died down and we watch a bored child hanging out by a Ms. Pac-Man video game machine, and a girl in a polka dot dress buries her head in her hands. seemingly despair. From there, the collective wandering in the dark continues, with an older woman making her way through a flash-lit copse of sticks, and a group of people all staring into the distance, perhaps- be towards fireworks or the stars.

At a time when more photobooks are embracing nonlinear storytelling and archival aggregation, the fact that The golden city has a relatively clear (though often indirect) narrative line is actually refreshing – Plumb has a sharp point of view on life in San Francisco, and the clever sequencing of his photographs takes us step by step through the layers of his thought . Aesthetically, she’s at her best when she uses flash and blasts darkness into high-contrast tension, but many of her wire-filled cityscapes and other interruptions are just as uneasy. At the end, The Golden City is anything but glittering or majestic; it feels like being in a city on the verge of exhaustion, where the staging and risk-taking of the night is the only logical response to the pervasive sense of decay.

Collector’s point of view: Mimi Plumb is represented by the Robert Koch Gallery in San Francisco (here). Plumb’s work has little history in the secondary market at this point, so gallery retail probably remains the best option for interested collectors to follow.

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