Together, We Capture the Soul of Indiana

By: Lynn Bower Last Updated: December 17, 2012

John-Bower-1Two-thousand-and-ninety-nine. That’s the number of cities, burgs, hamlets, and former towns shown on the official Indiana State Highway Map—and we’ve been to every one of them. For ten years now, my husband, John, and I have been on a mission to seek out relics and ruins of Indiana’s past—it’s forlorn and often forgotten heritage—and artfully photograph what we discover. Then, we present their portraits in exhibits, PowerPoint presentations, and books to Hoosiers throughout the state, and beyond.

As of this writing, we have seven of our Studio Indiana books in print, each covering a different aspect of our rapidly disappearing, shared, cultural legacy. And, were working on an eighth, which will be called Ghost Barns of Indiana. This is our full-time job, as well as our passion, for which we were named Distinguished Hoosiers by Governor Mitch Daniels.

Tracking down our subjects requires determination, curiosity, and lots of driving. We’ve driven over 100,000 miles so far, over countless country roads (both paved and unpaved) in all 92 counties, as well as state and U.S. highways, and more than a few rough and rutted dirt lanes. Sometimes, John is able to get leads from county historians, librarians, and lists of historical structures. While some of these pan out, frequently they do not. Aged, rundown, unused buildings fall down, are torn down, or are consumed by fire at an alarming rate. So, serendipity is essential to our search. Simply by traveling and exploring Indiana long enough, all sorts of wonderful “treasures” unexpectedly reveal themselves. It’s really satisfying, and fun—particularly when we had no idea, no hint whatsoever, that they ever existed.

Whenever, or however, we find an appealing building or object to photograph, we’ll first check if there’s someone around to ask permission to photograph—perhaps at a nearby house, or a farmer on a tractor. We try our best to get an OK, but many times, the places John photographs are so isolated, so remote, there’s no one around to ask. In those cases, if there isn’t a “No Trespassing” sign, we’ll carefully, and quickly, make our way to the structure, take a few shots, disturb nothing, and leave. Generally I look for details, interesting angles, or hidden gems for John to shoot while he’s busy capturing what first caught his eye.

John always uses a heavy-duty tripod for his medium format Pentax 6x7 film camera (no digital for him), as well as a hand-held light meter, various lenses, and colored filters. His tripod is usually laying in the back of our car collapsed, and the rest of his equipment fills two heavy professional camera bags. He only uses lack-and-white film (Ilford FP-4+), because he believes it yields images technologically in keeping with his aging subjects, while at the same time conveying their moody, poignant, and emotional essence—which can get lost in the confusion of color.

John-Bower-2John brings his photographs to life in his own darkroom in the lower level of our home. Under a red light, he develops the film (each roll contains 10 images). Then he lays one roll at a time on a sheet of printing paper, exposes it under his enlarger (a hulking 3-foot-tall countertop device), and prints contact sheets. These have images the exact size of the film—with each frame a bit smaller than a playing card—and the two of us decide which shots to enlarge to 8” x 10”.

John spends hours in his darkroom exposing prints, then passing them through a series of chemical baths (developer, stop bath, and fixer). It’s a traditional process that few chose to use anymore. He lightens or darkens certain areas of an image, and varies the contrast until each print is just as he wants it. He finds it deeply rewarding to create, with his own hands, and by using both technical and aesthetic skills.

Eventually, he’ll “tone” the prints that are destined for display, to give them a slight brown sepia tint. This chemical treatment also helps preserve the print so it will last for many decades. As you can imagine, from when he initially took the shot, to the finished print takes many hours, over several days. But he’s not finished yet—not until he hand-cuts each mat, mounts the print to foam board, and inserts it into a metal frame, under glass.

When we decide we’re ready to create a new Indiana photography book, we first choose a theme and a working title. Only then do we begin exploring and shooting—which can take from one to three years. As a graphic designer, I make the final selection as to what will be included in the book, lay out the cover and inside pages, and also choose the typefaces. Of course, John has input during this design process, and we both write all the essays. After we’ve received a Foreword (written by a prominent Hoosier), the book is ready for the printer.

Right now, John has 40 of his prints in an exhibition at the Lubeznik Center for the Arts in Michigan City. It features images from our most recent book, The Common Good—a collection of buildings and mechanical objects built with taxes, tithes, and tuition. There are haunting images of Gary’s abandoned City Methodist Church, its main Post Office, and the old Memorial Auditorium. From elsewhere in Indiana, there are empty country churches and one-room school houses, county homes, an epileptic asylum, and even the retired electric chair at the prison in Michigan City.

John and I would like to invite everyone to visit his one-man show at the Lubeznik Center, which will be up until February 24, 2013. I think you’ll really enjoy it. And, all seven of our books are for sale in the Gallery Gift Shop during the exhibition, along with a collection of individual matted prints from all our books. To learn more about us, and how John takes his photographs, check out our website: www.studioindiana.com.

The Lubeznik Center’s hours are Monday through Wednesday and Friday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, Thursday from 2 pm to 7 pm, and on Saturday and Sunday from 11:00 am to 4:00 pm. (All times are Central, or Chicago, Time.) The museum is closed on major holidays. The Lubeznik Center for the Arts is located at 101 West 2nd St. in Michigan City. Its phone number is 219-874-4900, and its web site is www.lubeznikcenter.org.