The Online Photographer

Check out our new site at!

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Steven B. Smith's American Suburban West

By Robert Pinsky

2005 was the year I recognized a cultural force alien to me: a rebellious, defiant vitality rooted in the American suburban West.

That may sound like a joke. It sounds paradoxical or absurd to me, an Easterner. Here are two examples, profoundly disparate, of what I mean, one from television and one from art photography: the animated series "South Park" and Steven B. Smith's collection of photographs, The Weather and a Place to Live, winner of the 2005 Honickman Prize in photography.

With each new season, the pre-adolescent characters in South Park, Col., enact more daring, unruly versions of reality. Those foul-mouthed yet innocent falsetto voices demolish cant from the left and the right. Mealy-mouthed moderation and evangelism, sanctimony secular as well as religious, get what they deserve, and the setting is a Western town a half-hour from Denver, a place where shopping mall culture and Main Street (site of "Tom's Rhinoplasty") thrive in co-existence. Even Hell and Heaven become part of the system with South Park Elementary School at the hub.

Smith's black-and-white photographs share some visual qualities with the cartoon-colored townscape of the TV series: stark expanses where the monumental blankness of a Utah or Colorado sky meets the equally blank geometry of irrigation pipes or two-car garages. Between mountains and fences, between a tremendous rock face and giant stacks of plywood, Smith's images record not so much a contrast as two violent absences joining as a single force. Landfill, seedling, turnabout, heating coil collude with the sky and mountains in a triumph of disproportion: scale not so much confused or lost as irrelevant: a loss of footing that is a visual equivalent for the moral goofs and chasms of South Park.

The deadpan, improvised juncture of immensity and triviality: that harsh, uninflected tone shared by these amazing works is different from my New Jersey ways and sensibilities. It is different from the language of poetry, too. (On the other hand, Smith's title does come from a poem, James McMichael's book-length meditation on Pasadena, Four Good Things.) But like true poetry, they peel away my automatic responses, and invite me to look again.


from The Year in Culture 2005, Slate,


Blogger Joe Reifer said...

Looking forward to checking out Mr. Smith's book. My favorite suburban study hands down is Bill Owens' book Suburbia. Maybe it's because I grew up in the 1970's, but something about the humor just floors me. I was also happy to see that Bill's book Our kind of people: American groups and rituals is going to be reprinted. It's truly an underrated cult classic.

4:02 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home