The pristine small towns of Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia—the spiffy villages of Colonial and Federal red-brick architecture and Victorian homes with gingerbread ornamentation—are not the ones
documented in “Elegy,” the exhibition of his work at the RISD Museum. His are the mill towns in those states in various degrees of decay. Mr. Kimball (b. 1961) visited these victims of deindustrialization between 2012 and 2016. The individual towns are not identified; instead, just the names of the streets on which the nine pictures were taken are used as titles suggesting the generic nature of their problems. And the individual pictures are not dated, suggesting the continuing nature of those problems.
Justin Kimball: Elegy
Through July 8, 2018
“Liberty Street” presents an example of the destruction that nature and neglect are capable of; the siding is peeling off the back of a building and exposing the insulation underneath. Whatever the siding material is (probably vinyl, but maybe aluminum), it is twisting, sagging, separating and not protecting the building.
That gray siding runs across the middle of the image. In front of it is a row of fir trees turning brown; in front of the trees is a wire fence; and in front of the fence is some rubbish—scraps of metal, lumber and a pink mattress. Behind the gray siding is a dormer covered with pale-green asbestos shingles, a cinderblock chimney, a large wall of weathered red brick, an electrical pole supporting three large transformers and wires running in several directions, and, in the distance, a hill covered with autumnal trees. The sky is a featureless gray.
All of the building materials and their present conditions have socio-economic implications, and all the details contribute to a sense of desuetude. “Liberty Street,” like all the pictures, is a large (but not huge) inkjet print, and Mr. Kimball, who has degrees in photography from RISD and Yale, is meticulous about composing images that include significant details.
“North Greenbush Road,” a picture of a single house, is similar in that the house is falling apart. The bottom level is cinderblock covered with what appears to be green mold; the white paint is peeling off the wood siding on the middle floor, and some of the siding has fallen off; the strips of aluminum siding on the top floor are separating. An outside door on the middle floor has no staircase to the ground. Windows are falling out. The roof has imploded exposing a cinderblock chimney. The grass is unkempt. Two signs tell us in red capital letters that this is “PRIVATE PROPERTY.”
“Spruce Street,” one of four pictures that include people, is bifurcated in an interesting way. On the left, a woman stands against a wall of red boards. She is 20, more or less, and has her hands in the pockets of her hooded jacket. The tear in the left knee of her jeans is the result of an accident, not a designer feature. She has a plain but appealing face, wears no makeup, and looks off to the left with a vaguely troubled expression. To the right of the red wall is a vista down a street; a man of about 40 with thick dark hair and a neatly trimmed beard stands on the sidewalk looking down at the cellphone he holds in both hands. The picture hints at anomie, that this is a community where people do not talk to each other.
On the other hand, the two people in one of the windows in “West Frack Street” could not be closer. The aluminum siding on this house is in pretty good shape although the white paint on the scalloped wooden trim seen at the bottom of the picture is badly peeled. There is a prominent TV dish. The window on the right has a cloth stuffed on top, presumably to keep out drafts; the upper pane is covered inside with gray cloth and the bottom with pink. A man wearing a white tank-top undershirt and with a tattoo on his right arm leans out the left window; he looks down at the cellphone he holds in both hands. Unlike the disengaged couple in “Spruce Street,” the woman here squeezes her head out the window and, with her blond hair hanging down, rests her chin and one hand on the man’s left upper arm. It is whimsical and affectionate.
Prosperity is never evenly distributed, and Mr. Kimball’s “Elegy” mourns for the sites it has passed by.
—Mr. Meyers writes on photography for the Journal. See his photographs at williammeyersphotography.com.