Mimi Plumb unearths the darker side of the Golden City, San Francisco

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All images © Mimi Plumb, 2021. Thanks to Stanley/Barker

After living in the city because the 80s, Plumb’s new publication gathers snapshots of strolls around the neighbourhood as the girl grappled with the unsettling disillusionment and shortcomings of the interpersonal landscape

I am sitting in the light-flooded living room of Mimi Plumb’s second-storey flat inside Berkeley, melting into a lush, plush chair. Plumb sits nearby on the couch. She is telling me about her first job, working for the department of housing, right after receiving her bachelor’s degree from the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) in 1976. For 3 years, she photographed farm workers and Native American housing throughout California; an experience that proved formative. “What I was seeing felt like Band-Aids, and that politicised me, ” she explains. “I started to think, ‘How can we address these kinds of problems? ’” 

These seeds of social concern informed her exercise and conversations when the lady returned to SFAI for her MFA in the mid-1980s. Plumb recalls that, “for severe discussions about the meaning associated with my work, its overriding content, my concerns, concerns and anxiety about what I saw in the world, I spoke with Larry Sultan. We often discussed what is to be done. Do images make a change? May images make a change? ” The girl continues: “For a lot of us, the particular 1980s were a very dark period in American history. There was not a lot of optimism. Being able to comment on the world with photography is what interested me. ” 

The Golden City © Mimi Plumb.

I had been introduced to Plumb’s work in 2018, when Oakland’s TBW Books published her first monograph, Landfall . Like Landfall , her forthcoming book, The Golden Town – published by Stanley/Barker – largely mines the girl vast archive of images from the 1980s, the majority of which she made in and close to San Francisco. “I do find Landfall and The Golden City as being from the equivalent pool of images, ” she says. “However, what this book leaves you along with is very different. ” 

‘The Golden City’ is one associated with San Francisco’s many monikers. “The title was in my head from the beginning, ” Plumb says of her book. “San Francisco truly is a fantastic city, but with an underbelly, which is where I resided and what I photographed in the 80s. ” She populated a small one-bedroom flat in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights, “a block above Road 101, on a street associated with low-to-middle income residences utilized by a dirt road. ” She reminisces, “I have distinct memories of the audio of the freeway and the see of telephone wires through my bedroom window. The sunshine was beautiful though. Many of the photographs in The Fantastic City were made in our neighbourhood. ” Several pictures come to mind, where modest houses perch in the foreground, the particular sweeping views of industrial sprawl obstructed by overlapping power and telephone lines.

Plumb primarily worked with a 6×7 medium format digital camera, regularly visiting the close by Dogpatch neighbourhood, Warm Water Cove (or “tyre beach” as she called it), and the city dump, along with a lot more exceptional outings, like twice attending San Francisco’s famous Erotic Exotic Ball. “When I went out to make images, I didn’t go thinking, ‘This is exactly what I’m looking for’. I’d just go out and look. But I do think I focused on things that others maybe didn’t see or even think were important. ”

The Golden City © Mimi Plumb.

The Golden Town © Mimi Plumb.

Addressing the issues 

As with many young people at the time, Plumb was wrestling with the unrealised, idealistic aspirations of the previous two decades, becoming increasingly radicalised in what she was witnessing in her community and past. “I felt like capitalism’s requirement for instant profits didn’t deal with issues such as climate shift or poverty, ” the lady explains. “I wanted to make work about that. But I didn’t want to do it in any sort of obvious way. ” 

The pictures in The Golden City are not skin flick in nature, which one may expect from work wondering society’s maladies. Instead, Plumb’s deep-seated anxiety and dread around these unaddressed issues are reflected in the girl often-unsettling subjects and an exclusive aesthetic of unease, thoughtfully edited and sequenced in order to ominous effect in The particular Golden City .

Burned-out cars plus buildings, mountains of detritus, high-rises mid-demolition, emptied freeways, graffiti-laden walls, abandoned schools, and lone figures fill Plumb’s The Golden Town . Just like Evidence (1977), an influential project by her mentor Larry Sultan and his collaborator Paul Mandel, many of the pictures in The Golden City are usually enigmatic, inviting conjecture and eschewing certainty. What, for example, are the trio of teenagers squeezed onto the flower sofa quaintly stationed on top of a roof staring at beyond the picture’s frame? And where is the infant that certain would expect in the rolling baby chair? Or exactly what solitary billboard, emblazoned with Grant Wood’s iconic United states Gothic , advertising amidst a destitute lot?  

Many of these photos also evoke the work in Henry Wessel’s Incidents (2013), moments drawn from everyday living that subtly unsettle as you closely surveys the scenes. Plumb’s distinctive aesthetic method and framing of the entire world further imbue her subjects with a psychological intensity, together creating a disquieting tension that will compels sustained, curious looking. Even the most innocuous scenes – a construction site, a woman laying outside on the blanket, a teenager lost within thought on a stool – are rendered uncanny through Plumb’s lens. Her impressive, nighttime portraits in The particular Golden City , where fill adobe flash is regularly used to spectacular, eerie effect, most acutely demonstrate this surrealism.

The Fantastic City © Mimi Plumb.

The Golden City © Mimi Plumb.

“For a lot of us, the 1980s were a very dark period in American history. There was very little optimism. Being able to comment on the entire world with photography is what interested me. ”

Mimi Plumb

The Fantastic City © Mimi Plumb.

When asked exactly what photobooks influenced her back then, without hesitation, Plumb replies, “Robert Frank’s The People in america . Their sequencing based on content was my model for book-making. And it still seems to be my model. ” It is not only Frank’s sequencing that resonates here, but also an interest inside expressing an underlying position through the pictures themselves. Disparities in class, economic status plus power weave through both The Americans and The Golden City . Curator Sarah Greenough writes, “[Frank] wanted to express his opinion of America in his photographs and reveal nothing lower than what he perceived to become ‘the kind of civilization given birth to here and spreading elsewhere’… he wanted a form that was open-ended, even deliberately unclear – one that engaged their viewers, rewarded their extented consideration, and perhaps even remaining them with as many questions since answers. ” A similar impulse underscores how Plumb made these pictures in the 1980s and her editing all these years later. Although the US ALL social landscape evolved throughout the 30 intervening years, these two photobooks share an unequivocal sense of alienation, nervousness and loneliness, sentiments increased through the power of considered editing.

The Golden City © Mimi Plumb.

The Golden City © Mimi Plumb.

A city occasionally

“I do have the book – just the pages even though, ” explains Plumb since she rises to open the cabinet on my still left. She pulls out the thick, unbound version of the book from the printers. “The sequence in The Golden City follows my path in making the work, ” the girl says. “It’s curious which i wasn’t aware of this earlier when we were working on the particular sequence since it’s so obvious when I look at it today. The early landscape pictures are mostly from the mid-80s. The people/flash pictures were generally produced in the later 80s. ” Transitioning from day to night, you are shepherded from the book’s staccato rhythm via a tarnished vision of the Fantastic City. The moment you think you do have a foothold, you slip. Highlighting the apprehension Plumb grappled with at the time, disparate pictures weave together to create a visceral experience for the viewer. “It really says what I need it to say, ” she unveils, smiling.  

In The Golden City , rather than relying on the particular allure of nostalgia, Plumb artfully uses photographs produced decades earlier to produce a clean, relevant and timely task. Despite San Francisco’s modern-day gold rush – the particular ever-expanding tech industry – many of the same problems continue; barring dated fashion cues, many of Plumb’s pictures could easily have been made these days. And while the pictures are usually of San Francisco, the city is a metaphor for a much broader cultural phenomenon – each then and now. “Things haven’t changed that much, ” Plumb sighs. “Except that a few of the problems are worse today. ” She emails us a few days after our discussion. “You asked me the reason why I had thought my 80s work might someday obtain attention. The main reason is the content material remains so very appropriate. ”

Allie Haeusslein

Allie Haeusslein may be the Associate Director of Pier 24 Photography in San Francisco. She is involved in all areas of the museum’s operations including curating exhibitions and having a child publications.

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