The camera records what is in front of it, but it doesn’t always tell the entire story. Since I’ve started posting photos of western Oklahoma on my blog and Instagram, I’ve had many comments about the apparently derelict condition of my home state. As a result, I think I should add some context to these photos.
The towns aren’t as quiet as they seem
I wish my photos had people in them, but I rarely saw pedestrians. To photograph people, I’d need to go inside Wal-mart, the churches, bars, and restaurants. Almost all life takes place indoors, and people go from point A to point B in cars. The townspeople often drove past me, looked at me curiously, and continued.
Also, I purposely shot many of the downtowns after business hours or on the weekend when I knew there would be fewer cars. I think modern cars are uninteresting and I preferred these photos to focus on old school architecture, retro signs, and classic cars – things that are vanishing.
Some of these towns are dying, some are not
There seems to be a critical mass of population that keeps these towns functioning. Cities with populations of 10,000 or more – the metropolises of the plains – seem to be doing okay, based not only on my observations but by data from the Census Bureau and Federal Reserve.
The most significant outmigration from Oklahoma is among people in prime working-age with college degrees – people like me who have almost no job opportunities in the region. This doesn’t bode well for the future.
There is plenty of prosperity, but I don’t find it photogenic
I could, and maybe should, do a series of photos that show the shiny SUVs outside the colossal Baptist Churches on Sunday or the new fast-food restaurants full of people. These towns have neighborhoods with new homes juxtaposed with areas of older houses in decay. The growing inequality in America can be seen on a micro-level even in small towns, something a camera is well-equipped to show. ♦
You bring up a good point about what the camera sees. And I’m with you, I’ll take a rusty tow truck over a shiny SUV any day. Absolutely love the Woodward sunset!
Modern cars look the same and are made of plastic. Of course, they don’t rust, are safer and use much less gas, so there is that 🙂
Just not as photogenic! Have loved your series.
Lots of great shots throughout this series. I especially love that sunset shot of Woodward.
My kids have come to think of Oklahoma as the Land of Broken Down Houses. They’re constantly on the lookout for dilapidated old houses when we visit.
The countryside is funny with those broken-down houses. I guess it doesn’t make sense to tear them down. And sometimes they are near new houses.
That sunset in WW was awesome. It lasted forever and the streets were deserted that time of night so it was a cool experience. Thanks for commenting.
It is so sad when towns loose their young generation for lack of job opportunities. I guess there are no easy solutions, but governments should work harder at trying to find solutions. Interesting point you are making with your photos.
Unfortunately, Oklahoma is not taking a pro-active approach to creating jobs or an environment for young professionals. Many schools have gone to a 4-day school week to save money, and investments in education and infrastructure are at a bare minimum.
Thank you Lani.
Lovely set of photos. You’re photographing on a theme; completely legitimate and more interesting photographically.
Good point on the theme. That is probably why I had so much fun taking these shots – I was actively looking for things that fit into my theme. Thanks for the comments.
Another amazing series of photos. I love the gas pumps in Butler and that sunset. Your intro provides good context. It’s unfortunate that so many of these towns are losing their educated young people.
The locals definitely thought I was weird when I snapped that gas pump in Butler. I’m glad you like that one because I think most people might not get it, but it is one of my favorites.
You find the folks in mega-churches and Walmart, but the school week is reduced to four days. That gives one pause.
Love the sunset.
Yes, it does. Also, many kids are going to online charter schools which sucks money out of the school districts and likely does not lead to the same mastery of subject matter that one might get in a regular school.
This is a wonderful collection of striking photographs.
The first thing that struck me about America when I arrived at age twenty from South Africa.. is how few people could be observed outdoors. I was amazed at how people were so reliant on their cars as opposed to walking or biking and how they went from air conditioning to heat and little time in fresh air.
Europe today is feeling this same trend of young people moving away from small towns and villages and going to the big cities where they can make more money and where there is more going on in general. So I think that this is a worldwide phenomenon actually.
The photos of the gas pump in butler and the cowboy church and the old car, are my favourites. But I also do like the grocery store and the deserted street at sunset, which has an eerie and romantic quality to it.
Sadly, small towns are dying all over the world as people move to the cities to look for work. You can buy a house in rural America – or rural Japan, rural Europe – for a pretty good price nowadays when compared to the cities.
I think the lack of walking in America is my least favorite part of it. In my neighborhood in Bangkok, I walk everywhere, and as a result, I interact with the same neighbors, street vendors, Muay Thai fighters, soi cats, local drunks, schoolkids and security guards every day. I feel a part of my community simply because I walk places.
Thank you for your comments.
You have again caught, what I embrace, about our part of the state…the quiet and the beauty of always being able to see the horizon. This beginning of the great plains is hard to capture. It is a feeling, I think.
The open plains are difficult to capture in a photograph since they don’t usually have defining features like mountains, lakes, streams, glaciers, etc. Being out in those vast expanses with the wind blowing and a thunderstorm brewing is something that must be experienced to appreciate. It is an awesome feeling.
Thanks for your comments as always.
Great photos! I love the gas station one.
Thank you Mani. That one was quite minimalist.
Another fantastic collection, Jeff. All great- standouts for me are “Butler” – love the stark balance and colors of your composition, Jesus Is…, Traffic 🙂 and Hooper’s (love painted wall signs). Such great representations of small towns. Real streetscapes sans big chain stores are treasures, albeit sadly dying.
Thanks for the Kind words, Jane, I really appreciate it. It was a lot of fun looking for the interesting things among these small towns.
I love exploring small towns with my camera. Your photographs really capture the small town feel. Great job.
Thank you Lane, I appreciate it.
Pingback: Western Oklahoma in Photos, Part IV | Planet Bell
These are fabulous photos Jeff. very evocative. Especially love the Butler gas pumps and Woodward at sunset.
I’m happy that people like the gas pump since it was a little different. We do get incredible sunsets in the plains since you can see forever. Thanks for commenting.