It’s been well over forty years since I lived in California, but when I hear about 117-degree days last summer in the suburb of Woodland Hills, only miles from where I grew up, I think back to my own 100-degree-plus summer days, the sun a big ball of white in the sky, the heat pounding down so hard it was like it was creating walls you’d bounce off of, those summers little but boundless dizzying waves of light and heat … yeah, I know where the title of Mimi Plumb’s new photobook, “The White Sky,” comes from.
Plumb’s previous book, “Landfall,” was full of pictures from the 1980s. In “The White Sky,” from Stanley/Barker, she rolls back a decade, to give us shots from the ’70s. Important to note that this is not the current California that, with climate change, simply exists, as authorities say, to burn up. It’s more a world of the ostensible California Dream, not the 2020 nightmare; though that decades-ago California was at least for teenagers hardly a paradise. What Plumb’s book captures so well is what we called “the endless afternoon,” those boring suburban days with nothing to do, a world around you so blank and empty that even grand imaginations could hardly begin to fill it.
Plumb grew up in the Bay Area, not the L.A. suburbs, and a few years after me, but the world of “The White Sky,” the parched hills and endless days of aimless teens hanging out, is one I recall well. Indeed, there’s a guy driving a car in front of a big Standard gas station who, with his beard and plaid shirt, looks a lot like I did back then (though I don’t remember ever going out with a girl with quite the beehive hairdo as the one that blooms on the date sitting next to the dude in the photo).
That Standard gas station, of course, is an inescapable California motif, from Ed Ruscha’s paintings to Stephen Shore’s famous shot from West L.A., and Plumb captures other essences of the Golden State, such as the broken-down Pontiac in the middle of a parched field, its left front tire flat, the driver’s side door and trunk flung open. That tribute to car culture gone bad is printed on the front cover and is a fine introduction to Plumb’s California, not the Beach Boys’ sun, surf, and hot rods but the endless parched expanses and things that don’t quite work.
What else is in her California? Well, those imaginations trying to lift into the nothingness, such as that of the young boy lying flat on a stark rock outcropping, his most-likely Evel Kneivel motorcycle toy leaping in his hand off the rock’s edge. Or the photo right before it, a torn-up newspaper feature between pieces of McDonald’s detritus, especially a foam Big Mac container no doubt helping in its small way to bring on global warming and those 117-degree days.
There are numerous photos of kids hanging out, in large clusters on a hillside watching a Motocross rider, and in a smaller bunch gathered for some reason on a bark- and rock-filled island in a Safeway parking lot, many gazing upward into who knows what. Toward the end of the book there are a few photos of swarms of trick-or-treating tikes parading under the hard sun, followed a few photos later by a teenager in shorts lying prone on clay-y land so parched it’s broken into vivid chunks. That parched land is another motif of Plumb’s book; earlier, right after the somewhat melodramatic title pages (“The” alone on a black page; a few photos, then “White” alone of a black page; a few more photos, then “Sky” alone on a … well, you get the idea), there’s a shot of just this broken-up land. And to make sure we get it, the final shot in the book is a wide unpaved dirt road lined with white concrete sidewalks, probably that of a subdivision coming along, but perhaps just a road to nowhere.
O.K., it’s not all manifest bleakness. There is some reasonable life in Plumb’s array of photos. Fairly early on we get seven most-likely family members squeezed into a toy choo-choo train about to head along the rails, and just before it a shot of two men in suits, of which all we see are their hands and the open Bible clutched by one of them. Right after that we’re at a celebration, looking at two photos of Miss Bicentennial 1976, one of her smiling grandly, the second of her looking pensively right at the camera. Right before these two shots is one of the few photos in the book strong enough that I’d consider hanging it on my wall: a small boy with a large cone-shaped something (horn? traffic marker?) looming in the foreground as a parade float of four women in a boat passes behind, pulled by another of those huge, wide, white-wall-tired ’70s cars.
All of the shots are evocative of Plumb’s California emptiness, and many supply apt metaphors, especially the trike and empty wood TV box behind a house, and most of all the set of concrete stairs of a no-doubt burned-out building that lead to nowhere, but there aren’t that many that say great photo. A few others that do: four boys playing amidst a mountain of discarded tires; a teenage boy in a sleeveless T-shirt gazing toward the camera; another strong portrait, this one of two teenage girls, one smoking and smiling provocatively, the other rising blurrily out of the frame, one leg of her jeans stenciled with the Zig-Zag cigarette papers guy.
Back when I was that teenage California kid I used to use Zig-Zag papers to roll joints, and who knows how stoned everybody (except Miss Bicentennial) in the book is. My guess, pretty damn blown out. That was certainly one way to confront the Endless Afternoon. (For the record, I realized a few years after my teens that I never really liked smoking pot, and haven’t touched it since.) But back then there was a whole lot of nothingness, all capped by the beating-down sun, to swim through every day; and it’s that aimless, pretty pointless existence that “The White Sky” captures so well.
And that’s my small issue with the book. Though as a whole it definitely connotes its specific aimless California-in-the-’70s world, there are a number of photos that are just kind of there. That picture mentioned above of the cracked, parched ground … it makes the point, but it’s hardly an interesting photo. Another has a smiling kid on his bike, his white dog running alongside him. A couple more long-snouted dogs behind a thin chain fence. A couple kids dashing across a suburban street. Not even much of a point to any of them. Would the book be stronger edited down? Probably. But that’s the thing with a book of photos from forty-five years ago, you’re kind of stuck with the shots you took back then.
Fortunately Plumb took a lot of other shots that are both strong photographs and fit her book’s theme well. A boy in glasses lying on his back blowing smoke in the air. A clutch of long hairs sitting on a concrete slab getting high with their dogs—looks like everybody’s got a dog in “The White Sky”—with a row of three wooden crosses in the picture’s foreground. The flank of a new subdivision home that has the stark elegance of a Lewis Baltz shot. A coyote, teeth bared, atop a picnic table. The backside of an elevated sign for “101 Movies” in a now vacant lot, signifying what looks like the death of a drive-in theater. Another huge ’70s auto upside down, its roof crushed.
Roofs crushed, imaginations beat down, spirits washed out under unforgiving skies. That’s what I remember from my California youth, and why on the exact day of the American Bicentennial I spent my first full day in New York city, where I’ve lived ever since.
I spent that first day watching Tall Ships float down the Hudson, then the evening in Central Park, where Leonard Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic for everybody for free. I knew right then I didn’t want to be anywhere else, and could never go back to California except for short visits.
According to her website, Plumb now lives in Berkeley, Calif., the home of my alma mater and a far cry from the empty suburbs of “The White Sky.” We’ve had some parlous decades since the burst of light and freedom of the 1960s, including those punked-out ’80s, which Plumb, in her previous book, “Landfall,” captured so well, with much stronger photos than in her new book. But when it comes to penetrating and capturing a certain kind of American ennui and blankness, Plumb is a master. “The White Sky” is a worthy addition to her canon, even if it’s not her most important work.
Which leaves me wholly curious what she could do with the past four benighted years in the U.S.
Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His latest novel is Savage Joy, inspired by his first years in NYC and working at The New Yorker magazine. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, Carnival of Souls, and New York Street are in the permanent collection of the libraries of the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photograph (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here; prints of his work can be ordered here, follow his instagram here). Dunn also teaches a course called “Writing the Photobook” at the New School University in New York City.