Mimi Plumb, The White Sky

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Stanley/Barker (here). Foil-stamped hardcover (30×24 cm), 136 pages, with 69 monochrome reproductions. There are no texts or essays included. In an edition of 1000 copies. Design by The Entente. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Photo world tastes can be fickle. Critical darlings come and go and legacies rise and fall. Consider the case of Mimi Plumb. Just two years ago, her name was relatively unknown in art circles beyond the San Francisco Bay Area. That changed in the fall of 2018 with the publication of her debut monograph Landfall. Shot in her native California in the early 1980s, the photographs documented a Golden State mired in dystopian ennui, approaching and occasionally surpassing burnout. “I remember having insomnia for a time when I was nine years old,” confided the book’s opening. “My mother told me there might be a nuclear war.”

Not exactly cheery stuff, which might explain why the series (originally titled Dark Days) took so long to reach the public eye. The delay ultimately proved serendipitous. By the time of Landfall’s release, the cultural pendulum had swung back around. Trump had adopted the Panglossian doublespeak of Reaganism, reprising the Gipper’s MAGA slogan and trickle down policies. Launched amid this conservative cycle, Landfall again captured the zeitgeist. It became a sleeper hit, quickly sold out, and generated a fresh wave of interest in Plumb’s work.   

Now comes the followup. The White Sky presents Plumb’s Walnut Creek photos from 1972-1978, the period just before Landfall. For those who enjoyed that book, this might be considered a prequel. It depicts California before the fall, still drifting through the post-flowerpower haze of the mid-seventies. The sixties had upended social mores but their immediate fallout had not yet solidified, and there was no great rush to sort out the future. Land and drugs were cheap. Prop 13 hadn’t yet passed. Harvey Milk was still Mayor of Castro Street. Suburban kids idled in undeveloped lots, sharing cigarettes or just staring up at the sky. What Plumb remembers as “the landscape of my childhood” was a frontier in limbo.

I should add here that Plumb’s “landscape of my childhood” was mine too. Like her (but 15 years later) I was born in Berkeley and spent my toddler years in Walnut Creek. My memories from that time are faint but they roughly jibe with Plumb’s world, the languor of youth buffeted by occasional whiffs of impending change. Perhaps those recollections merely reflect the nostalgia through which everyone views their early years. In any case her East Bay malaise feels true to what I remember.

Plumb’s California is a state of rootlessness, literally. Plants are scarce. When trees appear they are often shown out of season or charred by wildfire. Instead of vegetation, we see mostly barren soil, a visual theme which dominates the backdrops of most photographs beginning with the cover image of an old Pontiac parked near desolate rolling hills, and continuing throughout. The main body of work begins with a picture of a parched lakebed. A few pages later we see a highway rising from a forlorn mass of dry weeds. Then comes a photo of a trailer parked in the desert. Kids roam the wide expanse of an excavated dirt patch. A lonely figure BMXes through loose gravel mounds. And so on, before the photos finally peter out in an empty expanse of pavement. The most densely vegetated photograph in the book—if that phrase can even be applied—is a patch of dry thistle near some garbage.

In short, this is not the verdant California of the popular imagination. No leafy salads, bougainvillea, or redwoods in sight. Plumb has supplanted the dewy majesty of Ansel Adams’ west coast with something closer to Baltz’s Candlestick Point. Pictures of abandoned roadsigns, an overturned auto, and rusting equipment drive home the point. Unless you are a developer’s bulldozer, this is not fertile territory. To some extent the mood is a reflection of geography. Lying over the hills east of the bay, Walnut Creek has a semi-arid climate which is closer in character to the central valley than the foggy bay. So it is dry country, yes. But Plumb has taken artistic liberties with her source material, dehydrating the green planet into a Martian rockscape. Her use of monochrome enhances the effect. Golden hills desaturate to dull grey. Live oak leaves appear like charcoal smudges. And the eponymous white sky hovers above everything.

It may be hard to focus on greenery living in a state which burns every summer. In recent years, catastrophic wildfires have become an annual routine in California. But even in the 1970s they were a fact of life, albeit on a lesser scale. Judging by her photos, Plumb was fascinated with fire and its aftermath. Landfall featured pictures of flames in action, and several photos of charred ruins, and The White Sky traces her attraction to its early roots. The opening sequence features bystanders watching a shopping center burn. Later in the book we see glimpses of its remains, with pictures of blackened trees and empty foundations. Pictures of an industrial smokestack and teen smokers tend the visual coals. In light of recent events such images have a prescient quality. But they also reflect the natural instincts of many photographers: a sensibility for time’s passing, the catharsis of ruin porn, and the hope of creating some pictorial phoenix which might rise from the ashes.

Across this barren and blackened stage, Plumb casts a parade of wandering characters. Children feature prominently in this work, but also dogs, bicycles, autos, and other moving elements. With one notable exception—two kids huddling by their father—these youth appear unencumbered by adult supervision. The younger ones dress in costume, shoot guns, run through the neighborhood, and hang toys off a rock bluff, amid other adventures. The slightly older set has moved on to advanced courtships with independence. They might live in a trailer, blow the perfect smoke cloud, or socialize atop a gravestone.

If Plumb’s photos romanticize unfettered youth, it could be a function of her age at the time, and the childhood memories still fresh in her mind. Plumb was 19 when she made the first of these pictures in 1972. On the cusp of adulthood, one last glance in the rearview seemed only natural. Warning: objects in mirror may be closer than they appear. “Throughout my childhood years,” she writes, “growing up beneath the shadow of Mt. Diablo in the California suburb of Walnut Creek, I watched the rolling hills and valleys mushroom with tract homes and strip malls, and to me and my teenage friends, they were the blandest, saddest homes in the world. The starkness of the landscape hurt my eyes. The low brown hills coated with dry grass, scratching my ankles, fox tails caught in my socks. I was always looking for a place to hide from the bright, white sky. The raw dirt yards and treeless streets, model homes expanding exponentially, with imperceptible variation.”

Such a dour assessment might reflect the world-weary cynicism of any adolescent. But in Plumb’s case it had a specific generational component. She was a child of the sixties coming to grips with the blank materialism of post-war sprawl. A healthy skepticism might be expected. In fact this attitude was widespread among photographers of the time. As Plumb was making her own work, young contemporaries like Bill Owens, Robert Adams, Chauncey Hare, Michael Jang, and Joe Deal were poking their own holes in the suburban dream, a visual critique which came to a head with New Topographics in 1975. It’s not clear how much these photographers influenced Plumb directly, or if she interacted with Bay Area colleagues. But they swam in the same artistic waters.

Floating atop these currents was Plumb’s personal journey as a photographer. In The White Sky we can see the faint strains of a style that would eventually lead to Landfall. But it’s a more raw, less mature version. Whereas Landfall attacked its subjects head-on through flash and proximity, The White Sky reflects the casual wonder of a curious onlooker. Landfall features closeups of heirlooms incinerated beyond recognition. In The White Sky, fire is a less tangible threat, portrayed through spectators or distant smoke puffs. A narrow-tailed black dog seems to appear in both books, providing some continuity. With this older work Plumb is just getting her photographer’s feet under her, and its publication offers a relatively rare chance to peek in on an artist in her rapidly developing early years. If this were a musical album, it might be a basement-tape early recording.

Early recordings dovetail with the interests of Rachel and Gregory Barker, whose publishing house has come to specialize in the back archives of previously unsung photographers. By mining the golden years of straight monochrome shooting in the 1970s and 1980s, Stanley/Barker has repeatedly unearthed hidden paydirt, rediscovering overlooked obscurities by Judith Black, Karen Knorr, Sergio Purtell, Gary Green, and Nikolay Bakharev, among others. This is a publisher highly aware that photo tastes can change, and positioned in the photobook world to leverage those aesthetic shifts.

Plumb’s early archive fits seamlessly into their catalog, another strong monograph capturing a small forgotten slice of the past. Physically the book is gorgeous if somewhat imposing. Its thick rigid pages give it more heft than Landfall, even with a smaller pagecount. The opening title sequence is provocative and cinematic, revealing the book’s name and author one frame at a time, like a film’s opening credits. Encountering this stop motion rollout, the reader slows into a meditative pace, with internal clocks synched to a slower rhythm for the photos to follow. “What’s the rush?” the book asks. The photographs aren’t going anywhere. In fact, they might get even better after a 40 year wait.

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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One comment

  1. Steve /

    Thanks Blake…
    Recently acquired a copy of Landfall. Agree with your review points. Certainly is a visual statement clear when time spent alone with the book. I found her admission in a interview enlightening that her book only came together when editor took her prints and selected and sequenced them.

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