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Photographer John Bower Captures Indiana’s Vanishing Past

John and Lynn Bower have produced six books of John’s stark black-and-white photographs that concentrate on places and objects that have fallen by the wayside.

On the day they met thirty-seven years ago, John and Lynn Bower went for a drive in the country, and they’ve been going on drives ever since.

The Bloomington couple travels the highways and back roads of Indiana, seeking out artifacts of the state’s disappearing past for John to photograph.

So far they’ve driven seventy-five thousand miles throughout the state.

“We have driven through every single city and town that is on the Indiana highway map,” says John. “And there’s 2,099 on the map. There are some that aren’t on the map that we’ve been to.”

The Bowers have produced six books of John’s photos that concentrate on places and objects that have fallen by the wayside.

Their book Lingering Spirit documents forgotten Indiana farmsteads, stores, and barns.

After the Harvest depicts Indiana’s fading grain elevators and feed mills.

Silent Workplace showcases abandoned buildings where Hoosiers once earned a living.

The stark black-and-white photos invite the viewer to reflect on loss and the ravages of time.

“I try to bring out the emotion in these pictures,” says Bower. “And the memories, and all the stories. I don’t know what the stories are behind this shot of these particular [gas] pumps; I’m sure there are a lot of them. But I know there are stories there, and the least I can do is take a nice picture of it, because I know it won’t be there forever.”

I asked Bower what draws him to capture images of places that are crumbling and forgotten—the kind of places the rest of us thing of as eyesores.

“I have a lot of feeling for the people who built these places because I’m a hands-on person,” he told me. “And I know all those places were built by hand. Also, the fact that they’re not going to be there forever. I’ve taken pictures of all kinds of places that are now gone. Some of them were knocked down the day after I shot ’em. Sometimes a week later, sometimes a year later. Old abandoned places just don’t last.”

As befits a photographer who explores the past, Bower shoots in film (rather than in digital), using a medium format camera, and he processes the pictures in his home darkroom.

Does he shoot in film because he feels the look is superior to digital imagery?

“The way I look at it, is that they’re almost different mediums. It’s like the difference between oil painting and watercolor. Or the difference between black-and-white and color. Cause so many people who shoot digital will tweak them and polish them up, and make them a little more perfect in the computer. And that’s fine. I’ve seen lots of really nice digital pictures. But for me, it’s black-and-white film.”

The Bowers work as a team to produce the books.

When out on location, John photographs while Lynn takes notes and interviews people associated with the locations. Together they choose which photos will go in the book, with Lynn getting final say. Lynn, who’s an artist and graphic designer, lays out the cover and inside pages.

The couple produces the books through their own publishing company, Studio Indiana.

“We have our own publishing company so we do everything ourselves,” John says, “so we don’t have the delays that a big publishing company might have. That gives us total control, but it also gives us total responsibility. And we get the headaches as well as the joys.”

The Bowers’ new book, Journey’s End, documents the relics and ruins of Indiana’s transportation industry.

One chapter, “A Field of Hudsons” documents an auto graveyard that the Bowers chanced upon during one of their outings.

Driving down a lonely road at twilight, Lynn spotted a group of old Hudson automobiles far out in a field overgrown with weeds.

Detective work at a public library led the Bowers to the owner of the Hudsons, who permitted them shoot the cars as long as they kept the location a secret.

“They’re really kind of beastly automobiles,” John says. “The big old grilles—they were all chrome at one time but they’re not chrome now. Some of these things were just overgrown with weeds and vines growing inside them.”

Bower talks about the rusting, corroding autos with such enthusiasm that it sounds as if he finds beauty in their decay. Does he?

“There is a lot of beauty in decrepitude,” he says.

One chapter of Journey’s End documents the last days of the Studebaker factory in South Bend, which made its last car in 1966.

Bower spent three sessions taking pictures of the colossal concrete buildings, and when he returned to the site a few months later, he found a barren lot paved with gravel.

“This particular building they started knocking it down a few weeks after I shot it, so it’s completely leveled now.”

Bower shows me a picture of the factory’s gate house. The front door is off its hinges and leans against the door frame. The front windows have jagged holes, as if rocks had been thrown in them.

“I think of everybody who went through that gateway to get in the plant. There was some official-looking guard checking passes. And it’s empty now, it’s door ajar. The stories are there, but they’re silent now.”

A poignant photo in Journey’s End shows the disintegrating steel chassis of a trolley car abandoned in a Brown County wood.

The car was once part of a vast electric railway network in Indiana known as the interurbans that transported millions of passengers annually between cities and towns.

“One of the things we found around Indiana were old remnants of electric railways. We found some old cars, substations, power plants. There are hardly any of these left. People don’t know what they were. They don’t remember the electric railways in Indiana.”

In documenting Indiana’s past, does he have a goal?

“These places have defined who we are as a state. Places where grandparents lived and worked. They need to be remembered. I can’t tell the story, I can tell the story in pictures.”

John Bower’s next book of photographs will be of buildings that were erected for the common good, such as churches, courthouses, and old country schools.

The voices that once echoed through these buildings are silent, but John Bower’s photographs preserve their memory.

Adam Schwartz

WFIU Arts and Culture Producer, Editor "Directions in Sound"

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  • Steven Montgomery

    I really appreciated the Bowers traveling to 2,000 Indiana cities, and I liked the interviews, including bird sounds in the background; it was amazing to hear bout all the Hudson cars and the history of Studebaker!
    Adam Schwartz created an inspiring piece about the Bowers finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.

  • Steven Montgomery

    I really appreciated the Bowers traveling to 2,000 Indiana cities, and I liked the interviews, including bird sounds in the background; it was amazing to hear bout all the Hudson cars and the history of Studebaker!
    Adam Schwartz created an inspiring piece about the Bowers finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Salena-Rhoades/1175722764 Salena Rhoades

    I got into photography when I was a teen. My parents were going thru a nasty divorce and a captured image was a memory of things that were supposed to be forever. The family farm that was sold, the old barn that was dismantled with my handwriting and the date on the floorboard. Memories of time. If you don't capture them nobody will remember the past. It will be all gone.
    My husband encourages me to photograph things. He knows that it is very emotional for me. He bought me a really great camera this summer and so far I have captured many memories.Looking forward to many more years of driving down the country roads with him and my kids capturing images of things that a person once built and wonder where they are and if they feel the emotion that I have about that place.

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