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.
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.
Have you ever traveled through small town America?
What do you enjoy photographing?