America, forgotten: Todd R. Darling’s American Idyll

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Todd R. Darling returns to his home in New Jersey, documenting the town of Paterson in his latest photobook

“I became pretty close with a gentleman who was living in the furnace of an old factory,” says Darling, as he begins to speak about the roots of his project. “It used to produce Colt revolvers, the gun that mythically won the west. He was called the mayor of the factory, a veteran named Bob. He was a person who fell through the cracks in many ways. A lot of people I met fell through the cracks.”

This is the Paterson Todd R. Darling came home to. After living in Hong Kong for most of his adult life, the photographer returned to his childhood home in Wayne, New Jersey in 2016. Paterson is a stone’s throw away, a densely populated city designed by founding father Alexander Hamilton in order to jumpstart the American industrial revolution. Industry and prosperity was the ideology behind Paterson- 230 years later, unemployment, crime, drug abuse and poverty have made this dream a distant memory.

from American Idyll, © Todd R. Darling.

American Idyll, published by Damiani books, is a portrait of the city. The work has been showcased by the British Journal of Photography before, with one image displayed on the cover of the September 2017 issue Look and Learn. “The project’s evolved since then,” Darling explains. After sequencing the American Idyll photobook for three years, he’s now ready to share his story. ”My original interest was the city’s patterns of violence and how they were centered in a few neighborhoods. Then, I started reading the work of local poets William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg and researching Paterson’s history. The project evolved organically. The whole process took five years; two years to make the pictures, and three to figure them out.”

“We contend with the industrial promise of hope, prosperity and wealth and the reality is that when the economic winds shift, we fail communities, leaving them to fight on their own”

Each photograph carries a story, weaving together, forming an image of a city “stuck in time,” he says. “I wandered the riverbanks Passaic, searching for stories using a police scanner, going wherever the city would take me. I would spend hours photographing the people and places I met along the way.” Darling says.

from American Idyll, © Todd R. Darling.

”Leaving America was essential to the project,” he explains. With childhood nostalgia and decades spent away, it is through this unique lens that he captures the struggles of a city seemingly forgotten. “We contend with the industrial promise of hope, prosperity and wealth and the reality is that when the economic winds shift, we fail communities, leaving them to fight on their own,” Darling explains.

“Bob the mayor wasn’t able to earn enough to have a place to live. He was a veteran but wasn’t able to arrange housing through the VA for years. The reason they called him the mayor was because he would organise barbecues on food stamp days, and he would protect and care for the people living in the mill. When someone died from a drug overdose, he organised a memorial for them. To me, he represented the city of Paterson. He was a man on the fringe of society, like an outcast or an “other” that’s not supposed to be a part of the American story. The people I met in Paterson became my guardian angels, looking after me, inviting me into their homes. Everyone I met was a good person – I think they have all been failed in one way or another.” 

Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.