Bellaire: Ohio: The All-American Town

JTF (just the facts): Published in May 2019 by the Oglebay Institute (here). Softcover, 60 pages, with 59 black and white photographs. In an edition of 500 copies. Edited by Judy Walgren. The zine was made possible by a collaboration between the Rural Arts Collaborative, Oglebay Institute, the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, and EQT Corp. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Includes photographs by Kyli McMahon, Abby Garner, Brittney Beckett, Lindsay Hess, Jessica Rosen, Brittany Falcone, Cierra McCorkle, Nicole McCorkle, Brooklyn Dyer, Gavin Howard, Kaleb Hicks, Michaela Flaherty, Andi Perrie, Daniel Lednik, Tre Carter, and Kennedy Rhodes.

Comments/Context: Bellaire is a village in Ohio, located along the Ohio River with a population of just over 4000. In the late 19th century, its proximity to the railroad enabled the town to have some success as a glass manufacturing center, but of late, the most notable Bellaire residents have mostly been known for their athletic achievements. Like countless other towns in Midwestern America, it has struggled to reinvent itself for a 21st century world.

But recently, Bellaire has been making headlines due to a photography program at the local high school. In 2018, the documentary photographer Rebecca Kiger started a year long project at Bellaire High School (enabled via an artist’s residency through the Rural Arts Collaborative) to motivate students to take up photography. The students spent the year learning about photography and taking photographs, and at the end of the program, the students published a zine entitled The All-American Townbringing together the work of sixteen students who took part in the project. As stated in the introduction, “the goal of the class was to use photography as a vehicle for exploration, dialogue and creativity.” And while Bellaire isn’t remotely the first high school to publish an end of year arts summary, I think their results are quite striking.

Judy Walgren, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, photo editor, and educator, was invited to edit the zine. She went through over four hundred photographs by various students to create a coherent visual narrative that brings all the disparate voices together. The zine concept was inspired by the LBM Dispatch series by Alec Soth and Brad Zellar; self-described as “North American ramblings” and presented as an irregularly published newspaper, the collaborative text/image dispatches offered an undaunted view of present-day America through a series of road trips. The series began in late 2011, and the last dispatch, #7, was released in 2015 (a review of #5 can be found here). The zine by the students got my attention after Alec Soth shared it on his Instagram. 

The title of the Bellaire zine, “The All-American Town”, refers to the town’s official nickname after having been repeatedly used as the backdrop for scenes in many Hollywood films. The cover image is a blurry black and white photograph of the now abandoned Bellaire Bridge (it appeared in The Silence of the Lambs) seen through a moving car on a dark rainy day. The caption clearly identifies the location of this moody moment as Bellaire, Ohio, and the zine’s title, broken into three lines, appears in all capital letters.

The publication mixes black and white photographs with short first-person statements –  both the photographs and the texts are very personal, showing the students’ own homes, their hopes, dreams, and fears, and their intimate observations. The first image (taken by Kennedy Rhodes) combines an empty street in town in the evening with a car interior reflected in the glass, bringing together outside and inside, making the hollowness of the town feel personal. The next spread features a portrait of a young woman with her eyes wide open reflected in the darkness (by Daniel Lednik); “I have always dreamed about being a star” reads the text underneath it. The image is paired with a shot of a teenager’s room (by Jessica Rosen), decorated with an American Horror Story poster on the door, a mask, and some ghost shaped lights over the mirror. The motifs of quiet alienation, separation, and looking beyond life in Bellaire repeat like a refrain.

Another spread, one of my favorites, juxtaposes two full bleed images: an older man coming through the door back home carrying half a dozen bags with groceries (taken by Andi Perrie) and a shot of pantry shelves lines with jars of pickles and preserves (by Nicole McCorkle). I see these images as a nod to the rhythms of an older generation – maybe the man is someone’s grandparent – and their lifestyles that are in the process of disappearing. As two paired shots depict some grubby pipeline construction in the forest and a cluster of long empty bottles left behind in grass (by Lindsay Hess and Andi Perrie respectively), the text reads (with some bleak pessimism) “I hope Bellaire becomes beautiful again.”

The pacing of the visual flow creates a sense of aggregate narrative about the overall feeling of the place (from the vantage point of teenagers, many of whom feel trapped there), layering together various perspectives and giving them richness by sharing vulnerabilities, concerns, and cares in the captions.

A flash lit photograph of a dog sitting on the stairs (by Brittany Falcone) is paired with a similarly dark picture of cats playing around the clutter of a kitchen chair (by Lindsay Hess), the central cat seeming to smile with authority while perched on a plastic iced tea jug. The text underneath reads, “I dream of making someone’s day happy even when I’m not happy”. The following spread offers a much grimmer mood – its vertical full spread image captures a railroad along the water receding into the distance (by Gavin Howard) and the text reads, “I do not pray. I have lost all faith in God because of the things that have happened to me and others.” It’s clear from these and other sequences that a range of emotions simmer near the surface in Bellaire, and the students’ photographs provide an outlet for artistically wrestling with those realities. 

The zine closes with the following declaration: “These photographs and statements are a sharing of our collective truth and imagination.” While we normally don’t feature the work of graduates or undergraduates, much less high school students at Collector Daily, the authenticity and impact of this zine forced us to relax our usual rules. At once powerful and tender, The All-American Town offers a unique look into the beating heart of Middle America, as impressively depicted by the younger generation. Each photograph brings in a genuine personal story, and woven together, they remind us that towns like Bellaire are much more complex, conflicted, and nuanced places than we might assume. This publication also stands out an admirable example of how educators can push students with limited experience with photography forward via collaborative projects that poignantly tap into their lived experiences. 

Collector’s POV: This is a grassroots student publication. As such, the usual discussion of secondary market prices and gallery representation typically found here has been omitted. 

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