November 2006

Carrie Jones

nonfiction

La Porte, Indiana by Jason Bitner

In the October/November issue of ReadyMade magazine, in an article on DIY lamps made of unwanted hardcovers, there is a mysterious volume illuminated on the display shelf, with a spine designed with silhouettes. It is La Porte, Indiana, an intriguing and beautiful collection of found photographs from the Midwest by Found magazine’s Jason Bitner.

Found objects, especially photographs, prod and tickle the mind. Who are the subjects, frozen in a smile? Where are they now? Who did they love? Were they happy in that moment? A million short stories could be launched from a single graduation photo. For Bitner a sign in a diner in small-town Indiana (“Find a family member! Photos $.50 each -- or -- $5.00 for a packet”) led him to an unexpected bonanza: a giant photo archive of La Porte’s citizens from the 1940s to the 1960s, all proofs from town photographer Frank Pease’s shop.

As Bitner’s delightful introduction explains, the pictures in La Porte, Indiana are all studio portraits. They are posed and massaged to show the subjects’ best sides in black and white. How the definition of the “best” changes throughout the decades is one of the most compelling parts of La Porte, Indiana. A '40s woman appears in a lavish feathered hat and attempts a look of contentedness. A young guy in Buddy Holly glasses gives a goofy smile beneath his stiff brush-cut hair. A gal in a black sleeveless top gives her best Barbara Stanwyk smolder in profile. Children smile and cry at the camera, maybe to grow up to be activists, or burnouts or Reaganites. Elderly couples stand stiffly or look as though they are suppressing a giggle from a long-held private joke. One of the most interesting photos in the collection is a young white couple, facing each other, holding hands, he with giant sideburns and she with ironed-flat hair. Many of the pictures look frozen in time, even as the decades move on, with all the buzz cuts, pearls and lipsticked smiles. This choice of pose says “this is about us, not you,” an interesting counterpoint to the portraits of marriage in the previous generation. They were in love and defiant in the '60s; are they now?

There is no biographical information or dates with any of the photos, but occasionally there are a few teasing notes taken from the back of the photos with telling details of color (a smiling bespectacled woman’s prominently displayed watch is gold, her hair is “v. dk. brown”) or theme (a bow-tied baby boy is pointing, mouth open with the note “…and if I am elected…”).

Bitner’s love and respect for this town’s accidental archive comes through in the careful design of La Porte, Indiana. The pages are thick and creamy, and the dominant black, white and beige color scheme creates the feeling that you are holding something cared-for and precious. Even the stats on La Porte (founded in 1832, state flower the peony) are clean and pretty, like a page of a child’s geography text gone minimalist.

For every unimaginative person who throws away old family photos or who is not captivated by a prom photo blowing in the wind, there are people like Bitner who want to explore the mysteries of our airbrushed pasts and challenge us to make something of the thoughts those documents inspire.

La Porte, Indiana by Jason Bitner
Princeton Architectural Press
ISBN: 1568985304
192 Pages