The Golden City

Mimi Plumb’s new book documents a world grappling with climate change, war and poverty

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

There are countless reasons why someone might refer to San Francisco as The Golden city – the consuming, orange sunsets; the constant rolling fog that heats up the air between the buildings; or its involvement in the California Gold Rush. But even before it was nicknamed The Golden City, San Francisco wasn’t even called San Fransisco. It was only in 1847 that it was given its title, just a year before the Gold Rush which sparked a surge in the population. Then, in 1906, California experienced what’s deemed the worst earthquake of all time, shaking miles upon miles with impact reaching the Bay area. In fact, it’s noted that some remember it as the fire that ripped through the city, giving it a misleading title of San Fransisco Earthquake. San Francisco has an interesting past – its history still looms and is felt in the hills, landscapes and even the people.

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

Mimi Plumb, is an American photographer currently based in Berkley, California, beholds distinctive memories of the area of San Fransisco. So much so that she’s now compiled these past thoughts and snapshots into a book, aptly named The Golden City and published by Stanley / Barker. Mimi grew up on the edges of the city, where the rents were cheap and humdrum of city life was more diluted and dispersed. “San Francisco, known as The Golden City, truly is a golden city,” Mimi tells me. “But, as with most cities, it has an underbelly, which is where I lived and what I photographed in the 1980s.” The city during this time was rife in radical activism, with inhabitants taking to the streets in opposition of gentrification and the policies coming from the White House. It was a tumultuous time for politics and society, which caused sharp contrasts to those living in a gentrified, inner-city world and those on the fringe. Protests and anarchism subsequently forged and the arrival of a more underground, DIY culture, music and art stared to grow. But it wasn’t without its downside. 

“I was an art student working at a minimum wage job,” explains Mimi of the time. “I lived on the edge of the city where the rents were cheap. I photographed the environment around me, often taking daily walks in my neighbourhood of Bernal Heights; Dog Patch, along the bay; and the Mission District.” In one part of the neighbourhood named Warm Water Cove, located on the bay, Mimi observed captured a pile of tires and abandoned cars. In another spot, she climbed the chimney of a power station that was positioned above the 25th Street Pier – she’d sit and watch the planes swooshing above. Mimi is an observer and this becomes explicitly clear in her photography, that which steers from bleak landscape shots to the more intimate, candid portrait. All of which is shot in signature black and white and features a distinctive luminous tone – an ominous hue that probably couldn’t be captured anywhere else apart from The Golden City. “I actually began this project in the early 1980s using colour film,” says Mimi, “but the blue skies didn’t convey the edgy content of the work.”

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

To accurately (and artfully) tell her stories, Mimi has divided the book into sequences. The first half features notes from The Golden City itself, “predominantly of landscapes in and around the city,” she says. The work in this part is particularly distinguished as she documents the link between “wealth and power to climate change and poverty” – that which is pictured through angular cliff edges framing the city, almost like a colony of concrete ants in the distance; or busy streets peppered with suited city dwellers juxtaposed with the stark, deteriorating landscapes. Then, you reach the middle point: “The breaking heart and the two spreads that follow represent the heart of the book for me,” she adds. “The second half of the book, mostly portraits of both friends and strangers, reflects the psychological angst that I felt in myself and my community, both then and still now. One of the last pictures in the book – the girl in the polka dot dress hiding her head – is a stand-in for me not knowing what to do about it all. And my cat, Pearl, waiting and crouching is a portrait of me, as the world grapples with climate change, war and poverty.”

What’s most interesting, however, is that although the work in The Golden City was shot between 1984 and 2000, the topics, themes and issues explored are especially relevant today. The world over continues to tackle the warming climate, the dangerous policies imposed by the government and increasing poverty, not least in San Francisco. Mimi’s work, then, reminds us of the cyclical nature of things – that life and history tends to repeat itself. She concludes: “I see this book as a testament to the time and place that we are all experiencing.”

Mimi Plumb’s The Golden City is published by Stanley/Barker

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

©Mimi Plumb The Golden City

London 82

Traverse back to London in the early 80s, as seen through the eyes of photographer Sunil Gupta

The last time I indulged in the work of Sunil Gupta was during his major retrospective at The Photographers Gallery in London last year, during which he presented his politically charged – and narrative heavy – portraits and street shots on topics such as family, race, migration and sexuality. Sunil, who’s an Indian-born Canadian photographer based in London, has become widely acclaimed for his image-making, particularly his documentary work in New York and the lensing of injustices suffered by gay men globally. He tells stories through a merging of honest portraiture, candid street photography and the more intentionally staged, which in turn raises awareness of gay rights plus the struggles and complexities that the LGBTQIA+ community has experienced over time. It was in this very retrospective that I began to understand Sunil’s career-long goal and subject matter: he’s a visual storyteller, an activist and political voice of a generation.

And now, I’m given the opportunity to observe the photographer’s work once again, this time composed as a new book from Stanley/Barker and entitled London 82. The publication marks the moment in which Sunil began experimenting with colour, a time when he enrolled at the Royal College of Art in London and started playing around with the processing facilities. With an aim of capturing gay life around the UK’s capital during the early 80s, what first commenced as an inquest into an exclusively gay subject matter soon evolved into a wider exploration of life in the city – encompassing all sorts of characters from gay men, the elderly, migrants and people of colour. Here, Sunil tells me more about this momentous collection, the types of people he sought to photograph and what life was like as a gay man when he arrived in London.

Can you describe what London was like in 1982?

I had come to London as a young gay man at the end of the 1970s from New York with an interest in photography. It felt like a cold and unfriendly place for gays. Also, there was hardly any photography scene worth mentioning at the time. And of course it was so much shabbier than it is nowadays but then so was New York City. London felt depressed, cold, dark and lonely. It was also a place where I acquired a race problem by being South Asian. There were counter cultures like punk, the left, and of course the emerging gay disco scene but most of that was closed off to non-whites. It was the time when I felt very alienated.

What inspired you to pick up a camera in the first instance and start shooting this body of work?

I was in art school and I was learning to make work by project. In between the projects, however, I would do street photography as a way of exercising my camera skills and also of discovering a new city. I had the experience of shooting a specific street, Christopher Street, in New York as the centre of gay public life. However, I could not find anything similar over here, so in the end I settled on a route between where I lived in Fulham, my classes in South Kensington and my outings to the West End. Being in college allowed for some experimentation with colour negatives as equipment and processing were available for free.

What sort of person caught your eye while out shooting?

All kinds of people caught my attention when I was out shooting; gay men, of course, Black and Asian people, various OAPs who appeared randomly amongst the better off in West London. I wasn’t really trying to make any kind of sociological commentary, just some juxtapositions and formal arrangements that caught my eye. Of course all the backgrounds were very much part of the scene.

Can you share some anecdotes from working on this project?

I’m trying to remember if there had been any encounters with people whilst shooting these pictures. Mostly there weren’t, as people really did not want to be spoken to. In that sense, it was very different to my earlier experience of New York. I had to rein myself in and not appear too aggressive whilst I was photographing, as I had to learn to approach people directly and instigate encounters with my camera. People in London didn’t seem to like that very much. One of the things that really struck me was the extremes of wealth and poverty on display amongst the people on the streets. 

How does it feel looking back on this body of work, and how does it compare to the West End today – particularly in terms of queer culture?

What I didn’t realise was that, in a way, I had had a very sheltered life in those few years centred on my very privileged life as a photo student at the RCA in South Kensington. I hadn’t seen these pictures again until very recently when they got scanned. I’m amazed at the kind of naïveté they have from my point of view, since I’m giving everything equal weight; most of my projects were heavily weighted towards some critical stance or the other. London also seems curiously white and the Asians seem to be newly arrived. Contrary to now, when that is certainly not the case, as the West End has become much more diverse. And although London never developed a Christopher Street, it does have a small, touristy version around old Compton Street – a version that was palatable enough to be shown as advertising on airlines promo videos where the city is diverse and tolerant, despite having an appalling record number of arrests of gay for cruising in the 70s.

What can the audience learn from London 82?

I hope the audience can see that, in 1982, London was much less brash and more economically mixed in the centre. People had their own styles of dressing and that seemed to be fine. The streets seemed messy and lived in but that seemed fine as well. Gay men had become clones and were beginning to emerge from the fearfulness of the 1970s. I suppose the key takeaway is that it’s the moment that Thatcher swept into power with her mantra that society does not matter, only individuals do, and that it was every man for himself. That was going to define the 1980s.

What’s next for you, any upcoming plans or projects?

There are several projects online; a new commission is underway that is being organised by Studio Voltaire and the Imperial Health Trust. I’m researching the experiences of long-term users of the HIV OPD at St Mary’s as well as people who have recently had gender reassignment surgery at Charing Cross Hospital. An edited version of this new work will hopefully be on display at those hospitals by the end of February 2022. I am continuing to work with my archives, the next publication will be a text-based one. I am gathering all of my writing on photography over the last 40 years into one publication that will be launched by Aperture in the autumn of 2022. My retrospective exhibition that was at The Photographers Gallery earlier this year is opening at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto and will run from January to April 2022.

At The Night Garden

Published by Stanley/Barker, Paul Guilmoth’s new photo book is a loving and nostalgic ode to the garden

© Paul Guilmoth

When you imagine the luscious grounds of a garden, a handful of nostalgic emblems may rise to the surface: first the feeling of freedom, prancing through the long grass in the warm and sunny spells of summer – care-free and revelling in the goods that nature has provided. The second, a sense of safety, evoked by the familiar four walls of fencing or shrubbery. The garden, in this sense, is a sacred place and will remain to be one that’s loaded with memory – personal history – for those who enter. But how many have visited the leafy grounds at night, indulging in the moonlit shadows of the fauna as the spider webs thread from branch to branch?

Paul Guilmoth, a photographer based in New England, does just that in a new book aptly named At The Night Garden, which is now published by Stanley/Barker. Conceived through a stark yet weirdly calming monochrome lens, we see myriad of emblematic features prevail – the silky web taking on a sculptural form, the flash-lit structures of the leafs and bushes, and the glowing faces of their subjects only visible through the silver torch of the sky. But along with the magical, there’s also a sense of eeriness and longing that protrudes from the work. We observe the somewhat blank expressions of the people he photographs – their family and loved ones – as they stand hauntingly, sometimes posing and other times candidly raising an arm or glance, or cradling their head on a bed of florals. Their postures, along with the carefully chosen landscape of garden beds and trees, are more than aesthetic compositions: they’re telling us a story, Paul’s own personal story.

© Paul Guilmoth

Not only is it an elegy to a queer world and identity, At The Night Garden is also lovingly dedicated to Trula Drinkard-Goolsby, who died on July 17 2021 after one last day spent laying in the field – the setting at which Paul decided to centre this photographic study. “The week before Trula died,” says Paul, “she began spending entire days reclined in her field. Her body would be so still we’d come up closer to be sure she hadn’t left us. A slight movement of her head chasing a loose swallow, or a finger grazing a plucked blade of grass was enough. Tuesday night she had come into the kitchen after a particularly long 12 hours in her field. Her hair disheveled like a bird nest. She looked at a rhubarb stalk on the table and said to us ‘all this time I’ve never seen the flowers growing, but they’re taller every morning.’”

© Paul Guilmoth

For Trula, as perceived through this visual narrative, the garden is the safe space at which she spent her very last moments. It’s symbolic in a multitude of ways, nodding to the cycle of life and biorhythm of the natural world; commencing with energetic shots of place and people, the book’s sequence then concludes with an illuminated cave-like door that alludes to a passage. Once a human dies, do they then reincarnate into the lands, the trees and grasses, in which they passed? It’s humbling to think of it in that way, imagining the environment as a place that houses the memories of our loved ones. 

Paul’s At The Night Garden beholds many spiritual and religious references, from baptisms to funerals, to birth, folklore and the fragility of life. Multilayered and allegorical, it shows the non-permanence of everything around us, plus the uniquely human desire to preserve the things that we hold dearly – the garden, here, serving as the archive. So to make sense of the work in all but a sentence or two would be a tricky one, because most – if not all – will relate to the pictures in some form of another, giving the photographs new meaning with each and every viewing. It’s like a dreamworld, a place of past and present in which Paul records their memories of Trula. It’s a story that never ends so long as Paul, and we, will remember.

Paul’s At The Night Garden is available at Stanley/Barker

© Paul Guilmoth

© Paul Guilmoth

© Paul Guilmoth

© Paul Guilmoth

© Paul Guilmoth

© Paul Guilmoth

© Paul Guilmoth

Vacation

American photographer Judith Black unearths intimate pictures from a six-week road trip with her family

Johanna and Self, March 27, 1995, (Chico, CA) © Judith Black

Most might quake at the thought of being sat in a car for no less than 5,000 miles with their family – kids included. What with the hum of “Are we there yet?” echoing out of the backseat every five minutes or so; the vibrational thud as a punch smacks the arm; the endless rounds of Eye Spy and toilet breaks; travelling with your family isn’t always an easy one. But it was a pursuit that American artist Judith Black was keen to embark on with her four children around 40 years ago, which is now the focus point of her new photography book Vacation, published by Stanley/Barker.

After being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1986, Judith set out with the intention of a cross-country road trip to document the sweeping landscapes of the US, as well as the intimate and candid moments she experienced with her children – stopping off at New York, Chicago, San Francisco and various other memorable spots on the way. It took about six weeks in total from July 12 1986 to August 23; “We took some camping and a lot of photo gear,” she tells me, pacing the day’s drive to end up at a friend’s or family’s place. “We were on a tight budget. We kept track of the milage, gas, expenses and mostly to give the kids something to do.” Packed with snacks, entertainment, a 4×5 press camera, tripod, boxes of Polaroid Type 55 film, a flash and a bucket of sodium sulphite to process the negative, Judith and her family were prepped as much as can be. “I don’t remember how it all fit!”

On one stop, Judith and the family traversed to Lake Michigan to the summer cottage where her aunt lived. A hot day, Judith’s daughter “insisted on the punk look”; she snapped an image of them by the water’s edge, dunes in the background and her subjects caught in a moment that’s halfway between posing and candid. Her daughter placed in the middle in jet-black attire – almost as stark and monochrome as the series itself. Another depicts her sister’s newborn Matt at just a couple of weeks old. “They were on a swing at the park. The little frown on his brow…” It’s moments like this that make looking back on the series so momentous in its ability to mark an epoch of familial life; it’s like flicking through an old family album, a record of place and time where endless anecdotes can be uncovered. Below, I chat to Judith to hear more about the series, what family life means to her and the importance of documenting those closest to you. 

Erik, Laura, Johanna, July 20, 1986, (Lake Michigan) © Judith Black

What inspired you to go on a road trip with your family, and why turn it into a photographic series?

American photographers are aware that the cross-country trip of 4,000 to 5,000 miles one way is something of a quest. The road trip is made for discovering the country, having adventures, exploring the land (it’s huge, beautiful and ugly). The tradition goes back to the early exploration of the west, and the use of the new medium of photography to chart and record the land for the government, the amateur and the artist. Fast forward to the 1980s when I applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship, many recipients in photography have used the road trip to get out of their comfort zone… it was part of the idea of the fellowship: to travel. At the time, railroads joined the east and west coasts, American families of enough means travelled to see the national parks, the great cities, the wonders of the landscape. My thought was to follow in the footsteps of Edward Weston, Robert Frank and many others, but with my family in tow.

I set out on the journey partly because that was the focus of the Guggenheim grant, and partly just to see if we could make such a trip. I didn’t need to produce any results from the trip, so we were free to see what happened as we drove from place to place. My grant proposal was to make this journey from the east coast where we lived, to the west coast with my four children, and to photograph along the way. The kids were 18, 16, 15 and 12. Rob, my partner and step-father to the children, had traveled extensively, mostly by hitch-hiking; the hippie way. I didn’t know how the trip would work out, but it was a response to the more male adventure trip from Weston to Frank to Soth. 

Hank and Christian, May, 2, 1993, (Palo Alto, CA) © Judith Black

What memories or anecdotes can you share from the trip?

The first photo in the book is one that I took with my first Brownie camera at age seven in 1951 – capturing Aunt Edie with her dog, Lance, at the family cottage in Michigan. In 1986, I was able to take another photo of her with her dog Rover in almost the same spot. The titles and notations in the book hint at the narrative by suggesting familial relationships. There are many other anecdotes, probably at least one for every stop we made! And for each of the trips included in the book. 

A trip with four kids who were teens? We didn’t kill anyone! Five people in the car for a long trip can cause some irritation, to say the least. We finally resolved who could sit next to whom on the last couple of days. My brother was driving by that time. One child could sit in the front, I could sit in the middle of the back seat and each child could touch me. Otherwise, we had a lot of ‘He touched me’, ‘She looked at me’; we were ready to be home!

Maggie and Matt, March 1, 1986 (Seattle, WA) © Judith Black

The work is immensely intimate, which appears to be an intentional move photographically. Why work in this manner, and what stories are you hoping to share about your family?

I have been a mother since I was 23. With four children by the age 29, there was no time to leave home to explore even the streets close to home. I was about 34 when I returned to school to earn a masters degree so that I might be able to support my family. Photography seemed like a better choice pragmatically, rather than painting! So, I quickly realised that the intimate self-portraits and portraits of my family were what I knew best and could reveal with some kind of honesty. The photos in Vacation are about those times when I was on ‘vacation’ from being home. Sometimes it was the cross-country trip, sometimes it was when the kids were on vacation with their father, sometimes it was during visits to see my folks on the west coast. These are times most of us experience and they can be really fun or they can be upsetting. 

Dianna, Miki, Angie, August 15, 1986, (Concord, CA ) © Judith Black

Any particular meaning you’re trying to convey in the work?

What is that Tolstoy quote about families? ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Not all family stories are happy. Not all are really awful. But all have some kind of complication. The memories that our family album photos hold are different for each member. There is a complicated story for almost all the photos in this book, especially since we are looking back over almost 40 years.

What’s next for you?

Right now, I’m enjoying the success the two books I’ve published – knowing that people around the world will connect somehow with our ‘family album’ amazes me in some way. The people are particular to our family, but the stories hidden or written in the titles are more universal. It would be wonderful to have an exhibit of the vintage prints. I loved working in the darkroom and it would be nice to do that once again before too long. That would be a big project!

 

Judith Black’s Vacation is published by Stanley/Barker

Lynne, Milt and Christopher, August 31, 1986, (New York City, NY), Rob’s family © Judith Black
Til and Robbie, February 15, 1987, (Ithaca, NY) © Judith Black
Angie, September 17, 1989, (Concord, CA) mud monster © Judith Black
Pierre and Pig, July 6, 1991, (Ithaca, NY), 40th birthday bash © Judith Black
Jim and Rob, August 1986, (Chicago, IL) © Judith Black