Book Review: America In A Trance
The words “Small Town America” have been used to describe everything from “real American values” to the source of economic and racial anxiety. These definitions and assertions often come from those who have very little to actually connect them with these places, and tend to group vast swathes of land and the communities who live there into a single monolith. To put it simply, there are just so many preconceived notions and ideas wound up in the term “Small Town America” that it has become almost impossible to see these places for what they actually are.
Niko J. Kallianiotis describes his recent book, America in a Trance, as “a product of love”. In it, the photographer implores the reader to look at small towns throughout Pennsylvania without judgment or prior ideological assumptions, and to instead focus on the moments captured in the images he provides.
It’s easy to see how Kallianiotis works this goal into the book’s photos. Rather than portraying former-industrial towns in stark Great Depression-esque black and white, the pictures are filled with vibrant and lush colors; a woman’s red dress flows ethereally in the wind as she walks her dog down an empty street, the tan skin of an older man relaxing on his porch gleams bronze in the sun’s light, even the dun colored industrial pipes hanging over the road seem lively when seen through the camera lens. There is a mixture of close up shots of the residents in their daily lives with wide shots of the towns, creating a sense of space that imparts life and reality to the towns.
Together Kallianiotis’ techniques resist the dying Rust Belt town narrative, a narrative that often forgets that the people there have their own agency, interiority, and are not yet actually dead. Even in empty and abandoned streets, the shots remind the viewer that actual people live here.
Though the book is critical of the typical “Small Town America” narrative, Kallianiotis is still aware of the problems these areas face. Throughout the portions of text contained in America in a Trance, the writers acknowledge the issues of job loss, industry decline, a lack of infrastructure, and a feeling of slow but steady decline. Plastic statues line the yards of several homes, as if they were the manifestation of some longing for permanence in the face of this economic draught. There is a pervasive sense of emptiness as blank billboards and empty buildings line the streets. It’s hard to not see the dark clouds hanging in the sky as some dark storm ready to come. But these moments of darkness do not play into the cultural narrative, instead they acknowledge the facts and realities of the moments themselves.
America in a Trance may not seem to be overtly political at first, but at its heart it absolutely is. By rehumanizing the people who live in these towns, Kallianiotis is compelling the reader to question their own ideology and preconceived notions of how the world is.