"Our Town" considers the idea of community in the United States today. With images by over fifty photographers and a diverse group of personal essays, we journey through a multitude of representations and perspectives: small towns and suburbia, replete with shopping centers, main streets, neighbors, and white picket fences; urban communities, as established by a sense of turf and group identity; home and family as community; farm communities and the plight of the farmer; community as expressed through shared interests; and the concept of community or non-community, of "our town" as Anyplace and No Place, U.S.A.
Although, in an allegorical sense, I've been an actor on one stage or another for most of my remembered life, the only literal performance in a written play I've ever given was as Emily Webb in Our Town, when I was a senior in high school in 1964 in a rural outpost of Lancaster County, Pee-ay.
When I was twenty-seven years old, a few days before Grandpa Bob (my father's father) died, he called to tell me about a Portuguese Jew, a slave owner who settled in Jamaica in the early nineteenth century and had children with an Ashanti woman.
When someone dies in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, the custom is that after the body has been embalmed at the local mortuary, it is brought home for a twoto three-day wake before burial. Relatives, friends, and neighbors all bring flowers and food to the home for long day and night visits.
In that uncertain geography we call our national consciousness, agrarian culture has been celebrated as a touchstone from Emerson to Thoreau, from Muir to Frost. One of the earliest chroniclers of rural picturesque was Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, whose Letters from an American Farmer, written in the 1770s, was an early American best-seller at a time when America was a strip from Maine to Georgia 300 miles wide.
Home is where pathology meets entertainment. Home is where children of Satan worshipers who love too much and neurosurgeons who've had sex changes turn up on "Geraldo." Home is where you shouldn't leave without your American Express card.
Thoreau thought that places spoke, that they expressed themselves in a language "which all things and events speak without metaphor, which is copious and standard." And maybe we agree with him — some of us —so that when we read a book or see a photograph which contains, we think, a Sense of Place, we understand the writer or the picture-maker to have heard that language and somehow infused his objects with it so that we can know it, too.
As if to affirm Spain's new political, social, and cultural role in the European Community, curators Denise Miller-Clark and John Kimmich Javier chose and classified 169 images by sixteen Spanish photographers for their ambitious survey, "Open Spain/España Abierta: Contemporary Documentary Photography in Spain," which opened at the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College, Chicago, in January.
Airports, the numbing, beautiful, and finally hilarious photo-book by Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss, confused me at first. I was browsing a Zurich bookshop while on an endless promotional tour: the over-sized, prominently displayed, expensive coffee-table book with that generic title invited a quick peek inside.
SHELBY LEE ADAMS is head of the photography program at Salem State College, in Massachusetts. He has been photographing in Appalachia for over seventeen years. DAVID BYRNE, best known as the lead singer and songwriter for the Talking Heads, co-wrote the film True Stories.
We would like to thank the following people for their assistance and advice: Sarah Caplan, Todo Mundo; Peter C. Jones; Meryl Levin, the Picture Project; and Mark Marvel. We would also like to thank all of the photographers, galleries, and photo agencies who spread the word and helped make "Our Town" possible.
Front cover: photograph by Gregory Crewdson; p. 2 photograph by Skeet McAuley, detail of mixed-media installation; p. 11 photograph by Joel Sternfeld, reproduction courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York; p. 15 photograph by Joel Sternfeld, reproduction courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York; p. 16 photograph by Susan Meiselas, courtesy of Magnum Photos, New York; p. 17 photograph by Patrick Nagatani, courtesy of Jayne H. Baum Gallery, New York; p. 20 (top) photograph by Joel Sternfeld, reproduction courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York; p. 22 photograph by Patrick Zachman, courtesy of Magnum Photos, New York; p. 25 photograph by Paul Strand, courtesy of the Paul Strand Archives, Millerton, New York; p. 26 photograph by O. Winston Link, courtesy of Robert Burge/20th Century Photographs, Ltd.; p. 38 photograph by Mary Ellen Mark, courtesy of the Mary Ellen Mark Library, New York; p. 39 photograph by Clarissa Sligh, Van Dyke Brown print; p. 57 (bottom) photograph by Sandy Skoglund, 50X70" Cibachrome of installation, courtesy of P.P.O.W., New York; p. 63 (top) photograph by Adrian Piper, courtesy of John Weber Gallery, New York; p. 66 (top) photograph by Ethan Hoffman/Picture Project; p. 70 photograph by Sophie Calle, courtesy of Pat Hearn Gallery, New York.