These pictures were undertaken in response to the ever increasing sameness I found taking hold of my native state of California and the greater American West. A sameness evidenced in big box retail and one size fits all housing tracts.
I wished to go back, to an earlier time, more in line with that of my parents, and their parents before them. I wished to see first hand, before it disappeared altogether, the surviving fragments of a West that, while only a generation or two removed, bore little resemblance to the one taking shape around me.
The West was set upon, particularly in the early going, by a restless crowd eager to get on with it. It, meaning the future and the riches they hoped would be in store for them there. Looking back had little to recommend it. But now, these many years later, I think it does.
Curious to me was the degree to which these modern day ruins have been relegated. They represent what little remains, in the rural West, of a pivotal period in our history, one characterized by, among other things, the golden age of the automobile. America had arisen victorious in war, and was looking to stretch out, particularly in the direction of the setting sun.
Route 66 was in high gear and the West it brought forth sparked the imagination. Air conditioning had made tolerable desert passage and the open road beckoned. Much of America came through these small desert towns. And then it didn’t. Ransacked over time by the interstates, then the chains and the ever-increasing economies of scale they ushered in.
Something has been lost along the way. The low prices enabled by the big box stores has only made our world smaller.
These pictures lay tribute to an earlier time in our history when the landscape more reflected the singular and individual hands that shaped it. It’s an era considered by many, with respect to our built environment, as the halcyon of individual expression.
As I walked amongst the shattered dreams of pioneers who had gone before, gamely participating in the march of progress only to find themselves rudely left behind, and gazed off into the distance, it was possible still, these many years later, to glean some of the hope and unbridled optimism they themselves must have felt when they set down stakes and made their plans for the future.
The following was written by Robert Spertus for the publication of Sorry Paradise and served as the forward for that book.
A Western Vision
Tim Goodman’s West is a stark and arid region dotted with marginal enterprises and busted dreams, usually of an entrepreneurial character. It is a vast, hot, windy, sandy, gravelly land – by no means a particularly welcoming place – but that doesn’t mean it’s gloomy or apocalyptic. Water and greenery are scarce, wind and dust can be a problem, vandalism is chronic, all of this is true, but on the plus side this barren terrain languidly basks in the most beautiful light found anywhere on the planet.
Much of this land is “empty,” but much of it isn’t. Railroad men, miners, cowboys, the highway department, and tourists, as well as those who house and fed them, have staked out their own territory, leaving their own particular marks. A Goodman photograph shows all this. It shows he loves this barren western land for its own beauty and grandeur, but also for the unique way it accommodates the marks of man.
So there is something reassuring about Goodman’s vision. At a time of environmental nightmares, his work reminds us that the West is more expansive, and its beauty more permanent, then we might think. He persuades us that the terrain can nonchalantly accommodate motels, diners, gas stations, and all manner of chaotically strewn detritus, and do all this without sacrificing its essential character. No matter how cluttered and obscured, no matter how weighed down with wooden teepees and swimming pools, macadam and gas pumps, and the power of the land shines through. It is there before us and shall remain after we are gone. Wild and untamed, proud and subservient, America’s great West is full of Whitmanesque contradictions, yet, like America’s great poet himself, it is large enough to accommodate contradictions.
Because Goodman conveys the grandeur of the West so well, we can step into his images – and even while groaning or laughing out loud at man’s inexhaustible propensity for architectural folly – we can gaze about with high-hearted serenity. None of this is to say that Goodman is blind to the ravages of modern civilization, or worse yet, an apologist for them. As a native Californian, a professional landscape designer, and inveterate backpacker, Goodman knows well the speed and severity of over-development and the visual, aural, and physical pollution that result. But whatever rage and indignation he might feel is expressed elsewhere, not through his art. Goodman is not a photojournalist, he is a landscape photographer. And for him the only kind of landscape worth photographing is one he loves.
A century ago the great western photographers – men such as O’Sullivan, Watkins and Jackson – brought similar pleasures with their magnificent panoramas, often incorporating wagons, mine structures, rail beds, and all manner of shacks and storage depots. Like the intrepid pioneers who crisscrossed the West with their cumbersome wet plates, their mule-drawn portable darkrooms, Goodman tirelessly drives up and down the back roads of California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, returning again and again to certain favored locations. Like the pioneers, too, Goodman is singularly free of romantic preconceptions of what the “wilderness” should look like. He photographs what he finds, inspired by what is, not by nostalgia for some earlier era.
Now it is true that there are often ruins of various vintages in Goodman’s pictures, but they are not there as quaint and pleasing relics. There are no ghost towns, old graves, no collectible bottles nor rusted, antique tools. The stuff Goodman photographs lying on the ground could have been built there last year or dumped there yesterday, or it may be half a century old. But what attracts him most strongly tends to be the abandoned, the – perhaps temporarily – defunct. Specifically, Goodman is drawn to those little desert towns and crossroads that owe their existence to what might be called the Golden and Silver Ages of the automobile. In such locales he finds his “stuff,” which, to put it most generally, consists of assorted structures, projects and undertakings – each ripe with personal and societal history as well as pathos, humor, and pure, formal beauty.
Before the construction of the interstate system, the average tourist drove slower and, we may conjecture, more attentively. Settlements, with gas stations and repair facilities, were to be found at appropriate intervals, and small-time entrepreneurs constructed cafes and tourist cabins, often with considerable charm and individuality. Palms, cottonwoods, and evergreens (about which more later) were used for shade and to give an oasis feeling inviting a rest stop.
Goodman laments the way these old highways have been bypassed, particularly because it has meant the demise of the numerous small town motels, cafes, gas stations, and other tourist amenities. He finds solace, though, in the hope that he is saving a few odd bits and pieces from total oblivion. And he gets an obvious pleasure, too, from the process itself, for he considers it an act of homage to this vanishing and neglected landscape.
As noted before, however, Goodman doesn’t put much stock in nostalgia. There may be photographers wandering these towns in search of quaint calendar material or evocative movie sets (for a new “Bagdad Café” perhaps). You won’t find Goodman among them, though; when he sets up his tripod, it will never be in front of a stock shot or easy photographic hit.
Goodman has a vision of his own. While admiring contemporary western photographers such as Robert Adams, Richard Misrach, and Mark Klett, Goodman evinces an aesthetic that is significantly different. Adams creates “redemptive” images that depict the despoiling of the West but at the same time provide solace, by showing how natural beauty can shine through the smog, graffiti, and soulless tract housing. Goodman’s work is cooler and more formal. He avoids the ugly, the base, and the demeaning. He avoids too the contingent and sensational – the fires, bomb crater, and poised cattle – with which Richard Misrach counterpoints his magnificent panoramas of the “technicolor” West. Goodman’s sensibility is perhaps closer to Mark Klett’s. But whereas Klett focuses on natural wonders such as the Grand Canyon, the saguaro-filled Sonoran desert, the Anasazi relics, seeking to find a place for man within this “Eden,” Goodman is content to roam a more modern West, one that already has a place for man.
If Goodman’s work can be said to have a “signature,” I would say it’s his trees and shrubs. Most of his images include one or more of the following: tapered, conical junipers, silhouetted palms, and resolute ocotillos. They are used throughout the arid West to frame a portal or accent a property line. And even when the motel or diner or country welding shop has become a boarded up, windblown shell, they frequently cling to life, drooping and desiccated though they be. So they are survivors (or at least, fighters for survival), but in Goodman’s work these plants are less about hope than about failed dreams. Typically they speak of modest goals and commercial failure. Someone has tried to ornament a desert enterprise, making, in effect, a rudimentary statement on a bare canvas. But now the business is closed (although it might have a permanent “Open” sign on it), either permanently or pending some change in ownership or fortune.
These trees and shrubs help create the formal beauty and stillness that characterizes Goodman’s environment. They are always precisely “in place,” and like the images themselves, the junipers, palms, and ocotillos are invariably – and simultaneously – stately, whimsical, and somber. And as natural forms, but ones set down on the earth in furtherance of a patently artificial scheme of land use, these trees and shrubs perfectly embodyGoodman’s ironic, but easy going and non-judgmental, Western landscape. It’s a wonderful place, this landscape, and when we contemplate Goodman’s western portfolio, we are grateful that it has found the artist it deserves.
About The Photographs
The photographs represented here were obtained with medium format equipment and derived from negatives printed on Agfa Portriga and Ilford Galerie paper toned in selenium for both visual enhancement and archival permanence.
Photos measure 10 ½ x 13 ¼ inches.