P0. Box 208240. New Haven. Connecticut 06520-8240
14 November 1995
News Release


David Plowden's work documents 20th-century America

The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University and noted photographer and author David Plowden of Winnetka, Illinois, are pleased to announce their agreement to place Mr. Plowden's archive in the Yale Collection of Western Americana.

Mr. Plowden, who graduated from Yale College in 1955 and later studied with photographer Minor White, has written and illustrated fourteen books and provided photographs for thirteen others. His photographs have appeared in dozens of periodicals including Time, Newsweek, Life, American Heritage, Audubon, Smithsonian, Fortune, Modern Photography, and American Photographer. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the International Center of Photography, the National Museum of American History, and the Kunstmuseum, Luzern, Switzerland, have all exhibited his photographs, and his work is represented in the permanent collections of eighteen institutions including the Art Institute, the Center for Creative Photography, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Albin O. Kuhn Library and Gallery at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Campus.

Since 1952, when he began to photograph steam locomotives, David Plowden has studied, documented, and commented upon the transformation of America. He has described himself as "an archeologist with a camera" who has spent his life "one step ahead of the wrecking ball." "I have been beset," Plowden says, "with a sense of urgency to record those parts of our heritage which seem to be receding as quickly as the view from the rear of a speeding train. I fear that we are eradicating the evidence of our past accomplishments so quickly that in time we may well lose the sense of who we are."

From the steam tug boats that once traversed the Hudson River to the iron and steel bridges that first spanned hundreds of American rivers, from the steel mills of metropolitan Chicago to the small towns and farms of rural America, Plowden has photographed the vanishing artifacts from which the contemporary United States has emerged. In his most recent book, Small Town America, Plowden wrote, "I look at my photographs as portraits of our ancestors. As such they serve as reminders that we have all walked in someone else's footsteps; that it is impossible to cut oneself off from the past."

Compiled over more than forty years, the Plowden archive includes more than ten thousand negatives and contact prints, several thousand exhibition and reproduction prints prepared by the photographer himself, his field notebooks, journals, correspondence, reasearch notes, drafts of his various publications, and copies of virtually all of his published work. George Miles, the William Robertson Coe Curator of Western Americana at the Beinecke Library, believes that the archive provides both an unparalleled visual record of post-World War II America and a roadmap of Plowden's personal development as an artist and social commentator. "David's negatives and contact prints often represent the last images ever made of now demolished bridges, steam-powered trains and boats, factories, and Main Streets. They are frequently the only visual record of important feats of American engineering, and industry. They document American architecture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and they show us the people who have lived through the heyday and decline of one American industrial era."

"At the same time that David's photographs precisely capture the image of particular things from America's past," continued Miles, "they are more than simple documents. They express David's own artistic vision and his ambivalence about the transformation of modern Arnerica."Within the archive, scholars will be able to trace the photographer's evolving interests and how he sought to develop his photographic techniques to express himself. The archive contains 1200 images culled from Plowden's career, which the photographer has reprinted in recent years using dark-room skills refined through constant research and experimentation. The archive also contains earlier prints of many of these images, and by comparing them scholars will be able to trace the full path of Plowden's devel-opment as a photographer. Similarly, his notebooks and drafts will permit scholars to understand the sources of his published work and the concerns that shaped them.

The agreement between the Beinecke and David Plowden does not call for the his entire archive to come to the library until the photographer's retirement, but several thousand prints, copies of his publications, and research material for concluded projects were moved to Yale over the summer. The library plans to mount a major exhibition from the archive in the fall of 1997 and expects to make the collection of prints available for study in its reading room by the summer of 1996.

The Yale Collection of Western Americana is noted for its outstanding collection of nineteenth-century photography of the American West including important works by A.J. Russell, Timothy O Sullivan, Carleton Watkins, William Henry Jackson, John Hillers, and William Bell. As part of the Beinecke Library, its collections are available not only to the students and faculty of Yale University but also to scholars from around the world.

Black and white photographs available on request. For more information about the Beinecke Library, the Western Americana Collection, or the David Plowden archive, please contact George Miles, William Robertston Coe Curator of Western Americana, at 203-432-2958

Return to Plowden's page.