Invisible City: Daniel Shea Creates Fiction from Documentary Photos

February 28, 2013

By Dzana Tsomondo

© Daniel Shea

Utilizing the language of documentary photography, and relying on historical research on the Rust Belt of southern Illinois, Daniel Shea created a history of the rise and fall of a fictitious mining town called Blisner, Illinois. Click on the Photo Gallery link below to see more images.

… the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion. —Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities

Small children at play, scrambling heedlessly beneath the rusty stanchions of a bridge. The dilapidated corner of a warehouse, strewn with debris, exposed pipes clinging to a peeling ceiling. The weather-beaten statue of a miner, eyes hidden behind protective goggles, pickaxe hefted. Silhouettes of young girls gripping the wire mesh of an overpass against a moody sky. These images from Daniel Shea’s new artist’s book, Blisner, Ill., are all part of what the artist calls “an account of what happened in and what remains of a single Rust Belt town during the process of deindustrialization.” But this is all part of a conceptual sleight of hand. There is no such place as Blisner, Illinois. More than anything else, the book is about imagination.

“This project developed in a very roundabout way,” Shea notes. “I had a vague idea that I wanted to somehow work with fiction, but specifically wanted to build a character type through photographic depiction. Originally the project was much more portrait based and built around these two sites I had designated in Illinois because of what they represented in the larger picture, but also their specificity and their industrial and historical lineages. But I didn’t want to make another project where I was just going to a place, titling the project with the town’s name or whatever; I was much more interested in expanding the concept of documentary.”

Few places figure as strongly in the country’s collective imagination as the American Heartland. Whether lauded as the nation’s “breadbasket,” bemoaned for the economic shifts that turned “America’s Foundry” into its “Rust Belt,” or whether invoked as the touchstone of “real American values,” the Midwest is a font of mythologizing narratives. Shea’s study in Blisner, Ill. both builds upon and subverts these myths, all while toying with the line between the tangible and the imagined and leaving the reader off-balance.

That subversion starts with the book’s format and sequencing. It begins by giving you what you expect: twentieth-century modernity gone to seed, set against a familiar nineteenth-century pastoralism. Towheaded boys squatting amongst fallen girders, intent on the game they are playing. Men whose faces bear out our expectations of a laboring class set adrift in a world that no longer has use for their callused hands or aching backs. And bridges abound—the sun setting through their copper-stained beams, shot from afar with quiet vegetation on either side of their spans; or photographed from underneath, all drainage pipes, graffiti and slow, muddy water. Gradually we come upon faded historical documents peppered amongst the photographs: a history of coal in the Midwest, blanched newspaper clippings recounting a mine disaster in Blisner and a list of its victims, replete with the smudged ink of a document photocopied many times over.

An essay, titled “Span,” which was written by a friend of Shea’s, offers insightful musings on the nature of objects and the physical universe as they relate to the imagined self. It is both jarringly abstract and wholly concerned with the actual nuts and bolts of “things,” its title alluding to both the infinitesimal and the simple, the span of a bridge.

The book also juxtaposes old industrial charts and a well-creased document on illegal drug statutes and sentencing guidelines in Blisner. The historical documents were painstakingly cobbled together from various source materials.

“This is me recreating a town in detail,” Shea explains, “talking about coal, the people who worked there, the natives, early settlers, how a nascent industrial infrastructure developed and turned into this temporary but intense industrial proliferation in southern Illinois. I wanted to recreate that mythology, kind of like the vague idea we have about America that at one point things were really good, and industrially we were really prosperous, but then something happened.”

When I then ask what made Shea decide to create a fictional dying Midwestern town instead of simply photographing one of the real ones, he says something that sticks with me: “This is me specifically trying to complicate my practice, think differently—and ultimately, critically—about photography, about mythology and trying to address those things directly within the work.” He pauses before continuing, “I do think the book asks people to spend time with it and to really dig deep … I didn’t try to make something that would be quick.”

Related Article:

Daniel Shea Photo Gallery