Signs: Photographs by Jim Dow

Jim Dow, American (born 1942). Rear of Screen, Van Nuys Drive-In Theatre. Old US 101, Van Nuys, California, 1973. Gelatin silver print, 15 9/16 x 19 ½ inches, Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2018.51.55.  

“I never traveled around the United States to find myself. Leaving familiar confines is an outward-facing process best done by car on older two-or three-lane roads, stopping, looking, and listening, every step of the way.” – Jim Dow

American photographer Jim Dow (born 1942) has long been fascinated by the everyday structures that constitute the landscapes we inhabit. Between 1967 and 1977, a decade marking the first 10 years of his career, Dow traveled over 150,000 miles on multiple cross-country road trips, photographing vernacular architecture, signage and commercial billboards that conveyed a unique sense of human spirit and industry. Signs: Photographs by Jim Dow, includes 62 black-and-white photographs from this early period of Dow’s career, as well as a small selection of recent color photographs that extend the themes forged during these formative years.

At the time Dow drove around the country, he was a young man in search of his own artistic vision. Working almost exclusively with a large format, 8 x 10 inch view camera, he set out to refine his understanding of photography and its potential. Avoiding the monotony of the U.S. Interstate system, the dominant means for long distance car travel since the mid-1950s, Dow followed the older U.S. highways, established during the heyday of pre-World War II automobile travel. The buildings and signage lining these roads retained the character of this earlier period, but were in the process of becoming outdated cultural artifacts or disappearing completely from the landscape. They provided Dow with compelling, time-worn subjects.

Jim Dow, American (born 1942). Coffee At It’s Best Sign. US 11, Pittston, Pennsylvania, 1973. Gelatin silver print, 8 x 9 15/16 inches. Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2018.56.1.  

Born in Belmont, Massachusetts, Dow grew up the only child of liberal, academic parents. A self-described “mediocre” high school student, Dow decided to attend art school, mistakenly believing its coursework would prove easier than the academic rigors of a college or university. He attended the Rhode Island School of Design as an undergraduate, majoring in graphic design, and in his senior year, had the good fortune to take his introductory photography classes with renowned photographer Harry Callahan. Thanks to Callahan’s influence, Dow was able to continue graduate studies at RISD, completing his MFA in photography in 1968.

During his first semester of graduate school, he met Walker Evans, who was teaching at the time at Yale University. After seeing Evans’ documentary-style photographs of 1930s American subjects in the book American Photographs, Dow “was hooked.” He found Evans’ sophisticated embrace of vernacular American subject matter and straightforward, descriptive application of the medium to be revelatory. As he noted: “I had never before seen pictures that could be read, could stand up to long-term scrutiny. To me, the spare sharpness, the reserve and respect due the subjects were magic.” Dow became more familiar with Evans’ work between 1969 and 1971, when he was selected by John Szarkowski, curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, to produce modern prints from Evans’ negatives in preparation for a retrospective of the artist’s work in 1971.

Jim Dow, American (born 1942). Detail, School Crossing Sign. Albany, Georgia, 1975. Gelatin silver print, 7 11/16 x 9 5/8 inches. Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2018.51.49

While Dow worked with Evans, he began searching for his own subject matter, taking road trips in and around New England and visiting friends who lived in the southern United States and along the west coast. His photographs from this period bear a close resemblance to Evans’ work — a debt he readily acknowledged, as he has noted: “I had to find what it was that I wanted to take pictures of, what was mine and what was not. Like most, I began copying.”

When Dow took to the road, he always sought unusual or unique subjects that stood apart from the ever-increasing presence of corporate chains. Rather than focusing on the entirety of his subjects, he often isolated specific details of image and text so that they appear unmoored from their immediate surroundings. Roadside diners, drive-in movie theatres, ice cream stands, burger joints, billboards, gas stations and small-town, storefront murals all became part of Dow’s regular roster, as he refined his own artistic vision and organically developed categories of subject matter. Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1973 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1974 allowed Dow to continue his project.

Jim Dow, American (born 1942). Detail, Diving Lady Sign. Near US 19, Blairsville, Georgia, 1973. Gelatin silver print, 7 15/16 x 9 11/16 inches. Gift of the  Hall Family Foundation, 2018.51.51.  

More often than not, Dow’s subjects bear the marks of time’s passage, evident in the weather-worn surfaces, outdated clichés, and stereotyped imagery that prevailed in mid-20th-century American consumer culture but had begun to deteriorate in the shifting socioeconomic and political landscape of the early 1970s. It is this sense of things passing out of one time period and into another that permeates Dow’s photographs, which are less of a particular time than about the passage of time itself. Though most of the subjects Dow photographed have long since disappeared, the impetus to make one’s mark on the land through an assertion of livelihood, values and aspiration remains. In a nation where economic prosperity relies on a perpetual renewal of tastes, trends and styles, there will always be a desire to express individual agency and creativity. Dow’s photographs remind us that as difficult as that endeavor may be in an era of monopolized, corporate consumption, it remains vital for understanding our sense of self and community.

On view at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art May 7 through Oct. 9, 2022. Photography Galleries FREE

Organized by The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, this exhibition is supported by the Hall Family Foundation.

–April M. Watson, Senior Curator, Photography

CategoriesArts Consortium

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