Why I Love Photographing Small Town Oklahoma

Oklahoma, Photo Essay, Photography

On a sunny Sunday morning, I pulled into Carmen, Oklahoma, parked my car, and started walking down the deserted Main Street. Carmen is a town of 355 people in western Oklahoma, far from any major road. I saw absolutely no signs of life as I walked around snapping photos.

Most people will pass through a place like Carmen and not think much of it, but I felt excited. The empty buildings featured thoughtful brickwork and turquoise paint. An American flag stretched across the window of a defunct grocery store. And then I noticed a delightful detail – the turquoise letters in a window that said THE FOUNTAIN OF GOD cast a wonky shadow on the rattan curtains behind them, making a unique and photogenic visual. Around the corner, I came across the ruins of the fire station and snapped a few pics as a farmer drove by and gave a friendly, languorous wave.

I returned to the highway, keeping my eye out for quirky signs or unique buildings as I drove out of town. I was having so much fun.

When I visit my home state, I love taking photos in these small towns as I pass through them. The beauty of these towns lies in their uniqueness and charm. Settlers constructed most of these downtowns about 100 years ago, with some buildings predating statehood in 1907. They made robust buildings of red brick and fine architectural details designed to please the eye. Today, corporations make gaudy, generic buildings fronted by ample parking, designed to catch the eye as we speed by on wide highways. Modern architecture, from Wal-Mart to fast food joints to strip malls, are aggressively ugly. Pedestrians are not welcome in most American cities. We are going backward regarding architecture, city planning, and aesthetics.

Guthrie, Oklahoma, perhaps the most beautiful small town in Oklahoma. Think how much better our lives would be if we still made livable, charming, walkable cities like this today.

Walking around the small towns, I notice details unseeable in a passing car. I spot little American flags in windows, see interesting shadows in storefronts, profane graffiti in alleyways, missing letters on signs, and fascinating items in abandoned shops. I try to make the photos as interesting as possible, thinking about shadow, light, geometry, and reflections. I examine the street from all angles, looking for clever compositions. But sometimes, the best shot is just a minimalist, straight-on photo from across the street.

I feel a sense of urgency when I photograph Oklahoma. Since my last visit in 2019, several of my favorite locations have fallen into further disrepair or been vandalized. I’m happy and lucky I shot them when I did, but I feel sad about the loss. These photogenic old places are disappearing daily, replaced by generic buildings no one will ever photograph. In this world of social media, where everyone flocks to the same famous spots, I feel I am doing something rare by documenting these small towns. And in places like Dacoma, I may be the only person making a record of her subtle beauty.

The detail on an old bank in Fort Supply.
I first shot this abandoned gas station in 2019, but an arsonist got to it before I could return.
I was struck by the color and geometry of this school in Deer Creek.
I loved the clouds and minimalist composition I was able to make of this hotel in Medford.
I’m always delighted to see faded advertisements atop the old buildings.
The countryside between the towns is loaded with quirky gems like this sign near Cooperton.
Sometimes everything comes together for a great composition – defunct Wilber’s garage, a grain elevator, blue sky, and soft evening light on the red bricks. Even the power lines cooperated by following the line of the building. Seen in Fargo.
Gloss Mountains, Oklahoma
Sadly, this building in the Gloss Mountains has completely collapsed since I first photographed it in 2019. I love the GOOD EATS painted on the side.
I enjoy making simple yet creative compositions and in Oklahoma it is fairly easy since there aren’t a lot of cars or people to get in the way. Seen in Seiling.
Downtown Watonga is off the main highway and I suspect few people see the photogenic buildings in the old town.

Have you ever traveled through small town America?

What do you enjoy photographing?

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Currently living in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. I travel, write, take photos, and stalk street cats. ~ planetbell1@gmail.com

14 thoughts on “Why I Love Photographing Small Town Oklahoma”

  1. Mechelle Andrews says:

    I love your photography as much as I love small towns. My parents grew up in Camargo and I lived there surrounded by grandparents, aunt, uncles and much extended family. Your photos bring back memories of many places there…most long gone. There little white church with the steeple that I attended as a toddler is still there as is the little house with the wall made of stones where my great-grandmother lived.

    • I have a photo of that white church in Camargo from my 2019 trip. I was struck by the orange doors on the building. I imagine growing up in those towns you had a lot of freedom to ride bikes and explore without your parents worrying too much. Thanks for commenting and sharing your memories.

  2. Big yes to walkable cities! There have been studies about how US cities’ car-centric layout does more harm than good for the wellbeing of the population in the long term. Yet, many developers in Indonesia don’t seem to care about this and keep building neighborhoods that don’t encourage people to walk or take public transport.

    These small towns in Oklahoma really look beautiful and inviting. I love how many old buildings are still well-preserved in these places. I also enjoyed your playful take on minimalist photos — that’s right up my alley.

    • When I first went to Europe many years ago, I decided right then that I wanted to live in a walkable city. That is surprising and sad that developers in Jakarta would make it more car-centric – you already have some of the worst traffic in the world. The last thing I’d want to do in Jakarta is drive!

      Some of the buildings are well-preserved, others not so much. I think the longevity of these buildings is a testament to the craftsmanship and materials. They are made of solid bricks and put together with care.

  3. It’s hard to see so many defunct businesses, despite the simply beauty. Unfortunately, small town America is dying. And a wonderful way of life as well.

    • Agreed about the defunct businesses. The people have to drive thirty minutes to an hour to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, and there just aren’t many opportunities for educated people in these small towns. It seems like the towns with over 1000 people have some new businesses and are hanging on, but anything smaller feels like it will soon be a ghost town.

  4. Pingback: Okie Repeat, Part I | Planet Bell

  5. Love the photos, Jeff, as well as your thoughts on small towns. Being from one myself, I too lament the movement away from them.

  6. Jeff, this is a superb post. I particularly loved the set of photos from Guthrie – in my opinion it looks worthy of being declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. And I completely agree with your observation that buildings from 100 years ago are often more solid and beautiful than the ones created today. Too few modern buildings are designed with a sense of craftsmanship. I immediately think of a US$36 million stadium here in Indonesia that went viral recently because it’s only about a decade old but is already falling apart – officials are blaming the soft soils for the massive cracks running through the stands and the concrete structure.

    • It is funny to think of Guthrie as a UNESCO place, but yeah, it could. There are several blocks of streets that are in excellent condition and they have the brick red roads still. Outside the downtown are many beautiful homes from the same era.

      That is a shame about the Jakarta stadium since it is probably the pride of the community. I imagine they cut corners to save money if it is already falling apart. Of course, a proper survey and construction would have dealt with the soft soils.

      • Ah, my bad. I should have mentioned that the stadium is in Bandung and not Jakarta. Bandung is like Mexico City in that it was built in a highland area, right on top of an ancient lake bed.

  7. Wonderful photography, Jeff. There’s so many ways to capture the essence of the place, and love that you went with simplicity in this small town. As the saying goes, sometimes less is more. And with simple, sometimes that’s the best way to show things as they are.

    I’ve often wondered how many of these small towns are still around in the states. As you said, generic buildings by big corporations are coming up so fast these days. While I personally like and admire modern buildings and architecture, there’s always a warm charm and hospitality in these small places and old buildings that’s you can’t get anywhere else. They tell so many stories.

    Some day I would love to do a road trip in the States form the west coast to the east coast. There are so many things I like photographing, but I think my favourite things to shoot would include everyday life in cityscapes or towns, and landscape photography.

    • I’ve been living in Asia the last 7 years, and as you know, Asia is visual anarchy. I like photographing the chaos here, but it is also nice to visit a place with simple compositions. In small town America, you can stand in the middle of the street to get the shot because there aren’t cars.

      America is the perfect country for a coast to coast roadtrip. The west has the greatest collection of natural wonders in the world, from the Grand Canyon to Yellowstone to Yosemite to everything in between. Thank you for commenting.

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