Treasures from the Vault: John Bower

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

Recently I’ve found myself driving around Indiana, first to South Bend to see their museums and then the 5.5 hour drive south to my home city of St. Louis, which means I’ve spent some time gazing out at fields of corn and soy, run-down billboards, and derelict housing surrounded by forgotten farm equipment. As many do on long drives, I began to reminiscence, and my mind wandered back to a solo show FWMoA exhibited in 2019 of black-and-white photographs by Indiana Artisan John Bower. With his wife Lynn, he, too, drives around the highways and byways from his home in Bloomington (Monroe County), Indiana looking for subjects to photograph; compiling a visual record of Indiana’s heritage. The places I was passing, were they frozen in time in a John Bower photograph?

A black-and-white photo of a derelict schoolhouse sitting in a field of plowed crops against a sky of clouds. The roof has completely collapsed, but the bell tower stands strong.
John Bower, American, b. 1949. Oakgrove School, 1913, from The Common Good series. Silver gelatin print, 2009. Gift of the Artist, 2018.168.14. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Bower’s photographs are curated by subject, his photography books reflecting on forgotten Indiana farmsteads, stores, and barns (Lingering Spirit); Indiana’s grain elevators and feed mills (After the Harvest); abandoned buildings where Hoosiers once earned their wages (Silent Workplace); the relics and ruins of Indiana’s transportation industry (Journey’s End); and the ones featured here that document places built with “taxes, tithes, and tuition” like churches and schools (The Common Good). Drawn to the desolate and derelict, his photographs leave us wondering what stories their subjects could tell if they could speak. He and his wife have traveled more than 100,000 miles around the state, visiting every city and town on the Indiana highway map, fighting to photograph the forgotten before it disappears forever.

As it’s back-to-school season, I chose works from The Common Good series, specifically long-forgotten schools and abandoned buses. When I first saw the photograph above, I thought it was a church! That towering steeple, which once held a school bell, tricked me until I looked closer. What I spend the most time looking at in this photo isn’t the school, but the sky. One of my favorite things is when the sky melts into the ground, the clouds so low they appear touchable. The angle Bower chose reinforces the deserted feeling of the crumbling building, nothing in front or behind except sown crops. He noted, “Even with a collapsed roof, the tower of this abandoned school stands proudly in the middle of a corn field”, willfully existing. Standing sentinel, one may wonder what has made the tower home and how it has withstood the elements that broke down the roof around it. With the aid of librarians, historians, and intrepid exploration, the Bowers find eyesores and turn them into poignant reminders, often just before they are demolished for good.

A close-up black-and-white photograph of a schoolhouse shows the bell tower, tilting forward. The roof beneath is either crumbling or already gone, and the bricks on the side are falling as well.
John Bower, American, b. 1949. Brownsville Township District, No.7 School, 1907, from The Common Good series. Silver gelatin print, 2009. Gift of the Artist, 2018.168.31. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Again, I first thought this photograph was a church; those steeples are tricky! Much different from our first schoolhouse, we have no sky to distract our eyes, instead the focus is on the leaning tower and using tone and value to bring forth the missing shingles and broken bricks. Developing his own film, Bower is a hands-on artist, preferring the precision of the dark room to digital convenience. Developing his work within 2-3 days of shooting, he enlarges, focuses, and exposes onto Ilford Multigrade RC paper, varying the contrast by using filters and fine tuning the exposure through burning (more exposure) or dodging (holding back exposure). His finished prints and chosen by himself and Lynn and compiled into books through their publishing company, Studio Indiana. Their process is collaborative: Bower drives while Lynn scouts for subjects; once they’ve chosen a spot, they set up and shoot, detailing information about the site on their Macbook; Bower develops and prints the film; finally, together they choose the best images (Lynn has final say) and Lynn heads the design and layout of the book.

Why in black-and-white and not color? These were taken in early-to-mid 2000s! Bower noted that “by using the inherent drama of black-and-white photography, I’m able to capture the essence–the élan vital–of these subjects”, and since his goal is “to preserve, on film and in books, the richness, significance, and value that surrounds us–yet often goes unnoticed–so it can be experienced and appreciated by others”, the colorless photos invite our colorful, media-inundated generation to pause, look, and reflect.

A black-and-white photograph of a school bus left to decompose in a field with sparse trees in the background.
John Bower, American, b. 1949. Dodge School Bus, Rural Owen County, IN, from The Common Good series. Silver gelatin print, 2002. Gift of the Artist, 2018.168.2. Image courtesy of FWMoA

These “places fallen by the wayside that are overlooked” are also imbued with a sense of nostalgia. Those forbidden areas as children we used as meeting grounds, as teens for parties, and as adults for directions (turn left at the run-down yellow house, you’ll know it when you see it) all had past lives as vibrant, colorful used things. Capturing them in black-and-white seems the perfect homage to their current, often useless, state. Here, in Dodge School Bus, the bus has definitely seen better days. Appearing to spring from the ground like a mechanical mushroom, the bus has debris where children once sat and is now parked in a field in place of a schoolyard. How did it get here? Why was it left here? Perhaps my favorite thing about Bower’s photos is that they are all questions about society: the things we build and create and discard for new. Or are they answers to those actions?

“Beauty in the decrepitude” is undeniably John Bower’s specialty. What most of us would crop out of our sunset pictures and landscape photographs, Bower specifically picks out; giving the subjects another chance at life. The next time you go out for a drive, see if you can find the derelict and downtrodden beauties that Bower records as visual history.

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