Skip Navigation or Skip to Content

Coming of Age in the Small Town That Jimmy Stewart Left Behind

Indiana, Pennsylvania is a quiet little town situated about 55 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, nestled in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. It claims to be the Christmas Tree Capital of the World. But most famously (and more factually accurate), Indiana is the birthplace and hometown of the late actor Jimmy Stewart. Despite the fact that Jimmy left after graduating high school, he became the town’s biggest source of pride—a small town boy made good.

Like Jimmy Stewart, Indiana is the place where I spent my formative years. As a kid all I knew about Jimmy Stewart was that he was a famous actor and he was from Indiana. I never even saw one of his films until I was an adult. But even as a kid I could feel the presence he had in town long after he left. He was this larger-than-life person who came from this little, sleepy town known for its coal mines and Christmas trees. That presence that I felt as a kid is still there. Jimmy’s bronze statue greets the town from the front of the courthouse, multiple streets bear his name, his namesake museum continues to show his films every weekend, and each year during the holiday season Indiana is transformed into Bedford Falls for the annual “It’s a Wonderful Life” celebration.

01_jimmy stewart museum sign_to right
Justin Visnesky, Museum Sign, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

Indiana sits amidst an awkward push and pull of inhabitants. The Indiana Normal School that Jimmy attended before heading off to Princeton is now Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP)—a school known more for its parties than its academic prowess. The university has a reputation of being more George Bailey-on-a-bender than Jimmy Stewart, something the town tends not to brag about. Locals cling to the past with all they have while the constant stream of students passing through IUP could not care less about Jimmy’s legacy and his hometown’s faded glory. It’s tough to move forward when so much of the greatness of a place lies in the past. But every semester the town is reluctantly forced to face the present.

Growing up long after Mr. Smith went to Washington, I was angry, rebellious, and bored. I wanted to get out as soon as I could, but the pull of an affordable education kept me close to home. After I graduated from IUP, I left town like Jimmy. It wasn’t until I came back as a visitor that I realized how special the place really is. Nothing much happens and there’s not a lot to do, but it’s that stillness and quiet that informs the way I look at the world now. All the things I used to hate about Indiana are the things that now draw me back: The weird lawn decorations, the unkempt student rentals, prominent displays of patriotism and religion, and, of course, the excessive use of Jimmy Stewart as a marketing tool. These photographs are about the things we hold on to when we can’t let go, the pieces of our lives and memories that make us who we are. Indiana still believes in Jimmy Stewart. And I think Jimmy, wherever he is, still believes in Indiana.

02_eliot and confetti
Justin Visnesky, Eliot and Confetti, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
03_taped platic crosses
Justin Visnesky, Tape Crosses, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
04_nativity tracks
Justin Visnesky, Nativity Tracks, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
05_mangled awning
Justin Visnesky, Mangled Awning, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
06_jimmys feet
Justin Visnesky, Jimmy’s Statue Feet, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
07_jimmys_house
Justin Visnesky, Jimmy’s Boyhood Home, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
08_riley at screen door
Justin Visnesky, Riley, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
09_cup drain
Justin Visnesky, Cup and Drain, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
10_very metal
Justin Visnesky, Very Metal, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
11_caution trees_indiana
Justin Visnesky, Caution Trees, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
12_jimmy photo for sale
Justin Visnesky, Jimmy Photo for Sale, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
13_no hoop
Justin Visnesky, No Hoop, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
14_nixon
Justin Visnesky, Nixon Mask, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
15_fourth of july balloons
Justin Visnesky, Fourth of July Balloons, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
16_damn-yankees
Justin Visnesky, Damn Yankees, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
17_crooked eagle house
Justin Visnesky, Crooked Eagle House, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
18_jelly_bean_porch
Justin Visnesky, Jelly Bean Porch, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
19_jimmy_music house window
Justin Visnesky, Jimmy, Music House Window, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
20_indiana_sunset on rental
Justin Visnesky, Sunset on Rental, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

Photo Essay is a monthly series on the CMOA Blog that features images from both emerging and established photographers working in a variety of styles—from documentary and conceptual, to fine art and commercial. For past installments, visit the archives.

  • todd

    that is a beautiful series. my sheer aesthetic favorite is mangled
    awning, but damn yankees best encapsulates what i think/remember about
    the town, and crooked eagle house is pretty much a picture of all human
    effort in one domestic attempt at landscaping. wonderful work, justin.

  • Cathy Pino

    Jeez, I hope that when anthropologists dig this up someday they also dig up photos of my parents’ home (upright garbage bins, well kept lawn, no crooked eagles), the lovely facade of the Jr High, the well-kept businesses downtown, the renowned IUP marching band and the remarkable work they’ve done in the past years to spruce up the campus, fans at high school football games… I was looking forward to a nostalgic visit to my hometown via this photo essay, but am disappointed to find a bias toward backwoods, ghost town, lonely porches, hey-did-Jimmy-take-all-the-people-with-him-when-he-left images. Jimmy doesn’t live here anymore, but plenty of lively, vibrant, equally talented, and important people do as life continues on in the Indiana I grew up in and look forward to visiting whenever I can.