As American Falls

Steve Davis

2009 - 2011

Idaho, United States; American Falls, Idaho, United States

American Falls is a small town southern Idaho named after a real waterfall called American Falls, on the Snake River, that was long ago destroyed by a dam. Now the town is dying. This is where Seattle photographer Steve Davis grew up.

American Falls happens to be named perfectly for this global moment. The town is, no kidding, the seat of Power County. It also happens to be, according to Wikipedia, the first American town to be entirely relocated, in 1925, to create the dam.

Davis's photographs cover a wide range of approaches to documentation, even self-consciously so. The crisp right-hand half of Davis's photograph of a man sitting alone at a bar with his beer and cigarette could be a stock image in any hard-luck series. But on the left-hand half of the picture, the image dissipates into pure light and reflection, sliding into soft oblivion, or escape. The obdurate brick surface of the bar is seen in another picture, a deadpan portrait of its exterior under a gray sky.

The titles of the pictures are divided into types: fields, landscapes, people's names, nouns. Field #2 and Field #3 are a nice pair; #2 is an idyllic shot of a green field bursting with tiny white flowers (the famous Idaho potatoes) under a blue sky; #3 is a dose of artifice that's more real. What looks like plain old grass reflects an almost neon sheen as a stream of fertilizer falls on it, the stream stretching across the top of the picture like a coal-dust rainbow. The scale is unsettlingly unclear, as in Landscape #13, a picture of toy trucks in a tilted sandbox that, because of the angle, look about to drive onto the real highway above them.

An old woman and a young man wait for a parade—we see only their backs and the empty street. Two horses lean into the picture frame, a row of electrical towers standing between them—their replacements. High-school cheerleaders perform overly enthusiastically in front of an anti-drug mural of a snarling dog ("he only bites...meth consumes!"). A karaoke stage waiting for a singer is backed by American flags, as if singing in someone else's voice were the national art form.

And Davis gives formal, not just narrative, gifts: The prom court is a blur of colors beneath a crystal-clear moon. An illuminated cross is starting its shift, taking over from the sun, casting an impossibly beautiful blue light on a desolate spot where a silver light jumps back from the windows of lonely houses.

Davis's version of American Falls is not anytown, but in many ways it might also be the place you left, or are thinking about leaving, and you might recognize it. There's a man sitting at a desk in front of an imposing safe, but the safe door is just flung open and he sort of stares off. He's the mayor.

-Jen Graves, The Stranger

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