Plumb’s latest photobook The White Sky responds to her experience of growing up amid the arid landscapes of a West Coast suburb, and the environmental issues latent in her surroundings
“As a kid, I wanted quaint and beautiful. I wanted to feel like the sun and the bright white sky would disappear; I felt like I couldn’t escape,” says Mimi Plumb. The red-headed photographer grew up amid the relentless white-hot heat of the Californian suburb, Walnut Creek, during the sixties. A suburban paradise, or a nightmare, depending on how you perceive it. For Plumb, it was the latter; the scorching sun piercing her milky skin; stretches of monolithic houses extending into the distance; low brown hills coated in charred grass; strip malls; petrol stations; dirt yards.
Plumb was bored. It was the seventies but, she was too young for and too far from the demonstrations and counter-cultural escapades of nearby San Francisco and other West Coast cities. She recalls wandering the landscape smoking cigarettes; hair long and parted down the middle; jeans flared and ripped. Hot and suffocated. At 17 she moved to nearby Berkeley with its comparably verdant landscape and rich history. I felt liberated. “I didn’t see the suburbs as fulfilling the American dream; it wasn’t for me, but I’m not saying it hasn’t been for other people,” she says.
Having escaped Walnut Creek, she felt able to return, and, aged 18 she revisited the suburb she grew up in and other neighbourhoods like it in Marin and Sonoma County. Plumb documented the next generation of suburban youth on and off for the next seven years, from 1972 to 79. “I didn’t know the people I was photographing, but they reminded me of the people I knew and exemplified what I had felt growing up,” she says. The resulting photobook The White Sky, published by Stanley/Barker, collates these photographs: a subjective window onto life in the suburbs of seventies America. Boys play amid a mountain of tyres; girls hang out, smirking and smoking. “I knew what I was looking for,” says Plumb.
However, there is another layer to the series as well. A socially-engaged documentary photographer, Plumb bore witness to the landscapes around her: environments scorched by the sun, but also victim to drought and fire. The question of sustainability sits at the heart of the work. Despite being shot almost five decades ago, references to suburbias’ fraught relationship with the environment surrounding it are central. Plumb highlights an image of a coyote on a picnic table; hungry and tired: “I feel it says a lot about our connection to the environment; that desire to conquer the land rather than to learn how to live alongside it.” And perhaps the unsustainability of suburbia is emblematic of the unsustainability of the American dream: a social, environmental, and political issue, which is as, if not more, pressing now than it was when Plumb made these images.
Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.