Picher, Oklahoma | 2008 – 2016
On May 10, 2008, the town of Picher, Oklahoma was hit by an EF4 tornado. Destroying over 100 homes and killing six people, this was the last in a series of natural, environmental, and economic catastrophes to strike the town. A center of lead and zinc mining, Picher had been a boomtown in the early 20th century. By the time operations ceased over 10 million tons of ore had been removed from the area. Picher was a town that owed its birth to the mining industry, but when these companies left in the 1970’s, they left behind an environmental disaster. In 2006 the federal government determined the site was uninhabitable and began trying to buy-out homeowners and local businesses in an attempt to shutdown the town. Many individuals refused to leave Picher – their ties to the place too great. The tornado broke even their resolve.
In 2008 I completed work on the book Placing Memory: A Photographic Exploration of Japanese American Internment. This project was centered on the idea that landscapes are embedded with both memory and history – that cultural narrative is what defines place. Working on the book, I visited the sites of the ten Japanese American internment camps from World War II. Having been abandoned over fifty years before, in most cases these landscapes exhibited very little physical evidence of their history. One afternoon as I was making photographs at a site in Arkansas, the owner of the land approached me and we began talking. He told me how he and his brother had bought the property from the United States Government after the war and began farming. Although the camp itself had been removed before they purchased the land, each year as they plowed the fields they continued to uncover remains from the camp. For me this was a metaphor of how the past of these places had been buried and forgotten. Placing Memory was a project about unearthing the cultural histories and memories embedded in the sites.
I was familiar with the long-standing environmental problems Picher had been facing and with some of the state and federal efforts to address the situation, but I had never been to the town or seriously considered photographing there. I had seen many images and extensive photographic projects based on environmental disasters such as this. The work of Robert Adams, David T. Hanson, Edward Burtynksy, and Richard Misrach being examples of some of the best on the subject. But I was also familiar with several projects that treated these instances as spectacle, lacking any critical perspective or for that matter empathy. It was important to me that I not do the same.
I first visited Picher in 2008 shortly after the tornado. Here I found a landscape quite different from those I had encountered at the internment camps. The tornado had leveled houses in a significant part of the town, leaving only building foundations and pavement still in place. The ground was layered with material artifacts – photographs, books, clothes, toys, letters, etc. All lay bare on the ground, all dislocated, all removed form their original context. The town was mostly abandoned. Buildings sat empty and in many cases open. Although most of the town’s residents had left, evidence of their lives was everywhere. I realized that this would not be the case forever. I knew that eventually this place would resemble the internment camps – a landscape with little physical evidence of what had been before. During the next few years, each time I returned to Picher I found less and less remaining - the landscape increasingly enveloping everything left behind. Picher was in the process of disappearing - of slipping into non-existence. With Placing Memory I was concerned with unearthing a contentious history, in Picher I was witness to its burial.