BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
In his book Brave Companions, historian David McCullough wrote about legendary photographer David Plowden: “Above anyone else, he has produced the most powerful photographs of man-made America and Midwest farmlands.” McCullough had accompanied Plowden and his Hasselblad camera to what the photographer called “real country south of Kankakee.” He recorded how Plowden—often compared to his fellow photographer Walker Evans or the painter Edward Hopper—captured vanishing America.
While David has much to celebrate right now, observing his 84th birthday today, October 9, and planning his upcoming photography exhibit on the steel industry at Milwaukee’s Grohmann Museum, it is the work of his son Philip, an independent filmmaker with the same love of the heartlands, bringing him the greatest joy. When shooting his films, Philip revisits many of the small towns his father once photographed. And in his work scouting settings for the TV series Chicago PD, Philip often finds himself “looking for locations off the beaten path.”
“I often find myself wondering what my father would think, and I hear his words because I have gone out with him so often. Looking at small towns for shooting it is almost second nature for me to want to discover these places on film.”
On a recent sunny Sunday at the Plowden home in Winnetka, David’s wife, Sandra, and daughter Karen greeted us. We sat together, joined by David, surrounded by stunning black and white photographs snapped by Plowden, with the garden he had planted as a backdrop. Listening to father and son talk about their mutual passion for capturing and creating was a truly unique experience.
Both men are in a constant state of learning from one another. When you look at them you not only see a tremendous physical resemblance but a spirit of mentorship that shifts back and forth between the two. There exists there, too, a tremendous respect for one another any parent or child would value.
David quickly dives right into the art:
“Reading Dickens made me look. The world is so full and the question of what you will choose to put in the photograph can be terrifying. You ask yourself, ‘Am I capable to show what it looks like?’ The era I photographed doesn’t exist any more. It is important when things are torn down to be able to say, ‘I remember this.’”
David has authored twenty-two books on subject ranging from his first love, the steam locomotive, to industrial America, the plains, and small towns. It was David McCullough, his classmate at Yale, who gave him a formula for writing the texts for his books.
“I told McCullough that I wanted to write the text to accompany my book of photographs of bridges but I was stuck. To that he said, ‘Just write me a letter about it.’ From there my words flowed. He always encourages me and has my back.”
Philip and David Plowden talk a lot about subtleties in photography, with Philip adding:
“My father has said that many people tell too much. The viewer should be wondering about what’s around the corner, what those people in that train station are up to—Hitchcock was a master at this. My goal is to get people talking about the stories, wondering about the subtexts.”
David, in full agreement with his son, credits his mentor WPA photojournalist Walker Evans for bringing out this ability in his approach and output.
“Walker treated me as a child and took me under his wing. I remember one time, at his home in Washington Heights, Walker told me that photography was throwing wet prints up on the wall; not about nuts and bolts. His advice was: ‘Give me a corner to go around—don’t tell me everything.’ The viewer has to have room to use his imagination.”
Philip reports that his father can recall every photo he ever took, and what was going on in it, even though they calculate that he has probably 15 miles of photos. Several previously unseen photographs appeared in his recent show at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, one of many museums that collect his work. David has used his Hasselblad throughout his career.
“When I had it, I knew I had it. I would ask myself was I missing something. The darkroom is where mistakes were made. I have not shot anything digitally. I like having everything down to a square, which is very different than the rectangle. With the square, the viewer can step into the foreground. When I had it, I knew I had it. I would tell myself, ‘This one works.’ I would print it and it worked.”
Philip also talks about getting it right:
“As a student at Columbia College, I fell in love with the concept of storytelling through independent films. I want to make my own stories and tell them in the right way.”
His father feels that David has always had that filmmaker’s spirit.
“As a little boy, he always gravitated to people. He was fascinated with them and always made friends. I am a loner myself, but he was always a team player.”
To Philip, the director is a part of the creative process, and a film is the “greatest collaborative effort.” Producer of the award-winning feature film Chicago Overcoat, Philip formed Fatal Funnel Films with Devon Colwell in 2014. Their latest work is a short suspense-filled film, shot in Joliet and New Lenox, called Cellar Door. It will accompany a feature film Raven’s Point, to be shot next summer.
“Wardrobe, actors, prop people—everyone has specific themes as part of the central vision. I feel the air go in; the energy as obstacles are overcome. It is a living, breathing thing.”
In his considerable time spent as a teacher, including the Illinois Institute of Technology and the University of Iowa, David understood the importance of collaboration and energy his son has learned through his work in film.
“I took my students out into the field and surprised them greatly when I told them to leave their cameras in the car. I instructed them to talk to a person in a feed mill or to children after school about good places to take photographs. Children really see so much better than adults in so many ways. It would be a couple of days before the students were permitted to take their cameras along for the day.”
Born and educated in Vermont, David made his way to New York City. His son jokes that while he was in the city, he photographed bridges and boats—ways to retreat from urban life. And retreat he did—David felt the pull of the plains.
“I love the open lands and have taken photos from Newfoundland to the West Coast, in every state and province. With my first wife and our children, we camped out from June through Thanksgiving. We would go into a motel occasionally and I would turn the kids’ bathroom into a darkroom to test if I was getting what I needed from my photographs.”
Philip remembers crossing the country with his parents and sister in sleeping cars, with his father always talking about the adventure of it all, asking them to name the rivers they were crossing and encouraging them to look out at the countryside and really see.
Or as David McCullough wrote in Brave Companions:
“David Plowden has been on the road the better part of his life. He has traveled by rail and highway, in parlor cars and in the cabs of locomotives when the temperature outside was twenty below and more recently in a gray Datsun with a tape deck playing Brahms or Fats Waller, depending on his mood. He has photographed roadways and main streets and grain elevators, gas stations, ore docks, river and lake steamers, parking lots, skyscrapers, railroad stations and the list goes on.”
As does the list of those who have fallen in love with David’s work. The Art Institute, the Beinecke Library at Yale, the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, and most major photography collections in the United States own David Plowden’s works.