Mimi Plumb, The Golden City

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Stanley/Barker (here). Hardcover, unpaginated, with 64 black-and-white reproductions. There are no texts or essays included. Design by The Entente. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: As more and more previously overlooked or marginalized photographers are rediscovered, we as viewers are asked to wrestle with unexpectedly nuanced time dislocations. Artists new to us are introduced via their old work, creating a backward looking sense of both nostalgia and dissonance. It’s like we are encountering these artists in reverse, with the usual order of their artistic careers thrown into the wind, often jumbling any sense of linear progression. With one foot in the present and one in the past, we use our contemporary eyes to rewind ourselves back to vantage points and artistic perspectives formed years earlier, all the while trying to gauge how to slot these new discoveries back into the ever evolving chronological arc of art history.

In the past half dozen years, the California-based photographer Mimi Plumb has begun a promising climb up the challenging path of rediscovery. In 2018, her “debut” photobook Landfall (for a photographer now in her late sixties) introduced us to her work from the early 1980s, and the excitement around that imagery has since spawned further digging. It was soon followed by the 2020 photobook The White Sky (reviewed here), which stepped back even further in time, to the mid 1970s and Plumb’s early years in suburban Walnut Creek. The Golden City keeps the archival reveal going, now vaulting forward to the mid 1980s and beyond in San Francisco. And as evidence of her growing momentum and the renewed interest in her work, its release earlier this year roughly coincided with the announcement of a 2022 Guggenheim fellowship for Plumb.

The Golden City is largely set in a between times San Francisco, a handful of years before the technology boom driven by the Internet in the mid 1990s engulfed Silicon Valley and began aggressively transforming the city. From Plumb’s perspective, the signs of persistent decay at that moment were unmistakable, and her pictures from those years mix a sense of unsustainable fragility and frustration with a repeated motif of looking elsewhere, as if searching for answers or simply distraction.

Plumb’s aggregate portrait of life in the city starts with a series of photographs that offer a quietly bleak view of its environmental realities. Dusty rock hillsides look ready to crumble, and one that frames a distant view of the city already has a deep gash cut into its side; in 1989, the city would be rocked by a damaging earthquake, and these anxious pictures remind us that fears of geological shaking in the Bay area were (and still are) well founded. Another selection of images frames the metropolis using the overflowing piles of garbage dumps; planes fly overhead and hulking industrial facilities linger in the distance, while the foreground is covered with mounds of cardboard debris and leftover junk, including an incongruous console TV that seems eager to communicate but stands blank and silent. Still other images create intentionally interrupted views of the land, with spindly sticks that sit in front of the beach and dead weeds that reach up to veil a train car. An old tire covered with what looks like dried seaweed feels like an appropriately ugly symbol of the moment, and a young girl curled up on a blanket in an otherwise scrubby area feels small and vulnerable, given the consistently elegant grimness of Plumb’s pictures.

As the pages turn, poles and wires start to appear, cutting across vistas and connecting to layers of geometric houses in the foreground. These wires, including one that conveniently slashes through a cat perched on the top of a roof, then give way to seemingly endless interlocked highways that snake through the city, in one case, the toweringly dark flyovers dwarfing a house underneath. Destruction is never far from view, in the form of a building being demolished (with a Mercedes sedan parked in front to balance the action), strands of rebar and concrete that dangle near a crane, and the smoking ruins of a charred building with a fireman still chopping on the remnants of the blaze. Even when fresh new construction seems ready to step in with optimism, Plumb sees it like a hollow stage set, with bars bracing a wall that seems flimsy.

Throughout The Golden City, when people (and pets) appear, they are almost always looking away, out of the frame. One man standing atop the garbage heaps looks out beyond where we can see, as do a group of people clustered near a junked car. The same can be said for a smoking woman in cowboy boots (who stares languidly at something off camera), a man in a dark blazer (who we see from the back) who peers through a chainlink fence, and various people who have climbed trees and crosswalk lights to watch what is presumably a parade. A series of images captures a man, a woman, and two younger people (perhaps a family) in various loosely posed setups, where the man in particular looks over his shoulder sitting atop the crest of a roof (near a surreal billboard with a fist holding cash), turns away while standing on a different rooftop, looks upward from a couch on the roof, and then is later seen looking down while embracing the woman; in each case, his attention seems to have been momentarily drawn away by something more intriguing than his immediate surroundings.

At roughly the midpoint of the book, communication in the city starts to take the form of graffiti, with the cryptic messages ranging from the straightforwardly political (Dump Reagan) to the more pessimistically caustic (No Future and Man Made Pain Deadly Rain). But then even the graffiti breaks down into incomprehensibility, leading to the boarded up doors and blocked windows of a city closing off from itself. An image of an empty broken heart seems to be the poignant moment when Plumb’s mood finds its lowest point.

Much of the rest of The Golden City moves to nocturnal outlets from the daily grind, tracking the movements of various characters through the darkness of the night. Again, the motif of watching and looking away is reprised, this time with a man in leather lederhosen (with headjacks like Neo from The Matrix), another in a tuxedo and eye mask (like Eyes Wide Shut), and a woman dressed as a sexy masked nurse with a stethoscope. The locales Plumb has frequented seem rough and ready, with broken doors, makeshift decor, scavenged seats, and loose trash strewn about, with random dancing, pool playing, and relaxed drinking taking place at unnamed hours of the night. But by the end of the evening, the buzz has worn off and we watch as a bored kid hangs out near a Ms. Pac-Man video game machine, and a girl in a polka-dotted dress buries her head in her hands in apparent despair. From there, the collective wandering in the dark continues, with an older woman winding her way through a flash lit thicket of sticks, and a group of people all looking away, perhaps at fireworks or the stars.

At a time when more and more photobooks are embracing nonlinear storytelling and archival aggregation, the fact that The Golden City has a relatively clear (if often indirect) narrative throughline is actually refreshing – Plumb has a definite point of view about life in San Francisco, and the smart sequencing of her photographs brings us step-wise through layers of her thinking. Aesthetically, she’s at her best when she’s using flash and blasting the darkness into high-contrast tension, but many of her cityscapes filled with wires and other interruptions are similarly uneasy. In the end, The Golden City is anything but shimmering or regal; it feels like a town on the edge of exhaustion, where the playacting and risk taking of the night are the only logical response to the pervasive feeling of decay.

Collector’s POV: Mimi Plumb is represented by Robert Koch Gallery in San Francisco (here). Plumb’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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