City of Mines

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City of Mines by Anderson and Low is a photographic series that explores a former gold mining town called Victor in Colorado. In the late 1800s it was at the epicentre of the gold rush in the United States: its surrounding mines produced 21 million ounces of gold which in today’s money equates to roughly $22 billion. This is a staggering amount of wealth considering that even at its peak in 1899, Victor had only 18,000 residents.

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Since the end of the gold rush the population in the ‘city of mines’ had gradually declined to barely 400 local residents. Today, Victor is quite literally a shadow of its former self; the nearby mines have long been deserted, the streets are empty and the shops are mostly closed up. Since most of the buildings stand empty, they have the eerie appearance of a rundown movie set: they have fulfilled their purpose and now they stand like statues in remembrance of a once glorious past. Only every now and then, as evidenced in some of the photographs, can we see signs of life continuing in this run down city. People, however, are largely absent from the work.

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Jonathan Anderson and Edwin Low photographed Victor with a keen eye for composition, colour as well as the interplay between light and shadows. The contrast and texture afforded by the high quality technical execution of this work provides the gritty buildings and old shop fronts with a second life in this beautifully printed photo book. The occasional bar or pick up truck are signifiers for the few diehard souls that still roam the streets of Victor. Yet overall the photographs speak about a bygone era where time largely stands still.

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The photographs in the book remind me of a classic dilemma photographers are often confronted with. On one hand the viewer can quite clearly see what the photographs are of: a former gold mining town called Victor in Colorado. But what are these photographs really about? Are they about the former glory of this city? Are they about its few diehard citizens remaining? Are they about nature and how it has been abused and scarred for the purpose of mining? Or are they about something altogether different?

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The order in which the photographs are printed in the book further complicates matters. As such, the photographs are almost presented like visual chapters with dominant themes such as ‘mines in the landscape’, ‘old buildings’, ‘shop fronts on the main street’, ‘signs that life still continues in Victor’ and so forth. Presented in this rigid way, the photographs reduce the subject to the most common denominator visible in the image. For example, there is an old building on the left hand of the page and an old building on the right hand of the page. This is then repeated for a few double spreads until the next visual chapter begins. How the photographs are connected, other than the fact that they depict the same subject, and indeed how the visual chapters are connected is not clear. The sequencing of works in this structured compartmentalization of subject matter provides the viewer with few opportunities to decipher a narrative of what these images are about.

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In conclusion, perhaps City of Mines is best viewed as a photographic homage to a particular place in a particular time. In that sense the city very much lent itself to this project since it changed so dramatically over the last 100 years, from being a cornerstone of a rapidly expanding American Empire to a city that appears neglected and forgotten. The role of photography in this project is to visually arrest the decline of this city. Yet in amidst the locked up shops are signs of life, giving a sense of hope that this city might just survive.

Originally published at photomonitor.co.uk.

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