Rediscovering the American Rust Belt in the Age of Reagan
In the ethnic working-class backyards photographed by Jack D. Teemer, Jr., the people he portrays are rarely present. Instead, quirky decoration, religious statuary, pets, evidence of patching and fixing, landscaping or the lack thereof, and contrasts of clutter and tidiness reveal characteristics of ego, taste, achievement, class, and identity.
Teemer looks closely at the ordinary lives that might easily be overlooked, at spaces where the small, various, and personal hold sway. Though his subdued pastel colors and taut, packed compositions may not mime festivity, the photographs are meant to be celebratory. Teemer wishes to honor the individuals who have shaped these environments to be useful and meaningful.
With the exception of a photograph overlooking the city and another showing the yards off an alley, each view concentrates on one family’s space, usually a backyard hidden from the street. These are variously inviting, mysterious, frightening, whimsical, perplexing, or lackadaisical. Signs of life—the presence of children, toys, dogs, and clutter—offer clues but never clear descriptions of the people within.
Few of the houses and yards display the neatness that suburbanites equate with pride of ownership. Many are scavenger heaps of tables, chairs, planks, tires, cans, and other objects saved for some potential future use. Some owners iconicize one object, such as a hooded barbecue grill or a statue, to serve as a yard’s focal point or crossroads. The barbecue, nobly adorned with heraldic symbols, is featured in an especially inventive and exuberant use of space, with American flags, a sunflower whirligig, brightly colored towels, and patterned terrace. Business needs determine the arrangement of a backyard worm farm, a checkerboard of wood partitions, concrete, bags of mulch, and dirt.
These are older neighborhoods, often adjacent to industry and considered disposable by urban planners who would bulldoze them to build expressways, malls, or parking lots. The individuality of these spaces stands in marked contrast to the die-stamped designs of many housing projects and condominiums, whose uniformity precludes both the problems and pleasures of a multifaceted neighborhood life. Older communities are charming for their idiosyncrasies—varied topography and botany, channeled and multilayered views, individual forms of expression, and differences of use—all of them pictured in Teemer’s photographs.
Fences, walls, and other enclosures indicate that these Americans regard their homes as their castles, and signs reinforce the barriers. Predatory strangers enter these yards at their peril; the photographs suggest that dogs might outnumber human residents. One canine surveys the neighborhood from the roof of a house, and three fluffy dogs of dubious ferocity peer through a fence understatedly posted “Beware of the Dog.”
Actually, the fences are less a product of fear than of a fervent desire to mark one’s own space and possessions. Most were installed when these communities were ethnically cohesive, so they do not guard against heterogeneity so much as they proclaim pride of ownership. Indeed, the fences are like picture frames around each yard.
In his title, “Personal Spaces,” Teemer refers not only to each backyard’s personality but also to his own formal photographic solutions. His fascination with these neighborhoods is matched by the pleasure he takes in rendering observed spaces into two-dimensional, peculiarly photographic images.
Forms float in and out of focus in staccato dances of light and shadow, but as part of compositional structures in which recurring motifs, hues, textures, and tonalities are interwoven. Except when viewed at extreme close range, individual components optically blend together. The tangled debris of foreground, middle ground, and background join on the planar surface; flora becomes the warp and shadows or reflections the weft of a lush, deep carpet. Motifs recur with sufficient frequency to coordinate otherwise unruly chromatic, textural, and spatial elements. In virtually all of the photographs, the grids of chain fences activate the colors beyond them. In one such image, the floral design of a hanging coverlet joins the patterns of genuine flowers and leaves, trellises, bricks, clapboard, and other objects to form a striking patchwork quilt.
Analyzing why cities do and do not work, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs noted that “almost nobody travels willingly from sameness to sameness and repetition to repetition, even if the physical effort required is trivial … Differences,” she says, “not duplications, make for cross use and hence for a person’s identification with an area greater than his immediate street network.” Similarly, Teemer’s gravitation toward exotic groupings of colors, textures, and forms suggests that it is not the number of small elements, but their unique congregations that provide the visual interest that keeps both cities and photographs lively.
Teemer’s personal spaces are stage sets awaiting the arrival of human players. The classical 4 x 5 proportion of his frame, combined with his intense compression of interweaving visual motifs, invests these pictures with a quality of suspension that contributes to such a reading. The scenes are structured for viewers to vicariously peep through the many fences that veil, disguise, and contain the lives within.
Teemer says, “My photographs are beautiful because I need beauty, and organized because I need organization. It is also a way to entrust a sense of integrity for these people. I am not making fun of their tacky taste or their ignorant sense of design, form, and relationship. I feel alive when touching these people’s lives, in the streets and in their personal spaces, particularly the people of a different culture or social class. I am reminded of what is truly important in life—love, empathy, and human relationships.”
This essay is excerpted from the book American Independents: Eighteen Color Photographers (1987), written by Sally Eauclaire and published by Abbeville Press. A selection of photographs from Jack D. Teemer, Jr., are currently featured in the exhibition Photographs from the American Rust Belt, on view at Joseph Bellows Gallery in La Jolla, California, from February 27 through March 31, 2016.
Photo Essay is an ongoing series featuring documentary images that examine the social, cultural, and political landscape in Pittsburgh and beyond.