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Close up of a statue's feet.

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.

Poster of Jimmy Stewart's face; underneath, the word 'museum' with arrows pointing to the 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.

Photograph of a child's feet resting on concrete with confetti strewn about.
Justin Visnesky, Eliot and Confetti, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
Scotch tape on a plastic sheet, in the shape of crosses.
Justin Visnesky, Tape Crosses, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
A nativity scene outside a church.
Justin Visnesky, Nativity Tracks, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
A twisted and broken awning on the side of an old home.
Justin Visnesky, Mangled Awning, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
Close up of a statue's feet.
Justin Visnesky, Jimmy’s Statue Feet, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
View of a house from below.
Justin Visnesky, Jimmy’s Boyhood Home, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
A young boy looks through a screen door.
Justin Visnesky, Riley, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
A blue cup caught in a mangled drain embedded in the cracked asphalt.
Justin Visnesky, Cup and Drain, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
A man in a camo hat and army-green jacket reading, 'very metal.'
Justin Visnesky, Very Metal, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
Trees with orange reflective tape around their trunks.
Justin Visnesky, Caution Trees, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
Framed photo of Jimmy Stewart for sale outside a consignment shop.
Justin Visnesky, Jimmy Photo for Sale, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
A plain basketball backboardon top of a white garage.
Justin Visnesky, No Hoop, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
Patriotic mannequin wearing a Richard Nixon mask.
Justin Visnesky, Nixon Mask, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
Colorful balloons tied to a folded stroller in the trunk of a car.
Justin Visnesky, Fourth of July Balloons, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
A boombox with a clear cassette tape sitting on top.
Justin Visnesky, Damn Yankees, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
An old, white home sitting among lush greenery.
Justin Visnesky, Crooked Eagle House, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
Jelly beans scattered on a front porch.
Justin Visnesky, Jelly Bean Porch, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
A shelf with various musical items around a portrait of Jimmy Stewart; guitars hang on the walls and lay against the cabinet.
Justin Visnesky, Jimmy, Music House Window, from the series Jimmy Stewart Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
View of an old house's backyard and decrepit porch in the light.
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.