Daniel Shea: Blisner, IL

 At first glance, the former industrial town of Blisner, Illinois could be any town in the American mid-west: battle-scarred by the recent recession and successive waves of outsourcing by multi-national conglomerates, it’s residents now face an uncertain future where mass-unemployment is the new norm and formerly loyal industries have shut up shop for good.  At least, this might be the media narrative if Blisner, Illinois existed in reality, instead it is the construction of Daniel Shea who returns to photograph the formerly industrial towns of southern Illinois in his new book Blisner, IL, a sequel to his 2012 work Blisner, Ill

An aggregated archetype of post-recession America, Shea’s oeuvre employs fictive strategies to explore how photography can been used to mythologise a once illustrious past.  In Blisner, IL, fiction mirrors reality as localities are subsumed into regional identities, struggling to reassemble the memory of a linear economic narrative which  progressed from schooling to steady employment to comfortable retirement.  Shea’s photographic mythology thus acts as a painful reminder that to gaze romantically into the past for too long is to allow the future to fall into tragedy. 

We recently spoke to Daniel to find out more about his work.

Alan Knox:  What first lead you to photograph the formerly industrial towns and cities of southern Illinois?

Daniel Shea:  I moved to Chicago in 2008 and at the time I was working on a project about coal in Appalachia. When I finished shooting that work, I wanted something more local to dissect, that still dealt with industrial history. Southern Illinois was very tied to coal, but the landscape and place was very different than West Virginia and Ohio. 

AK:  How did you approach Blisner IL differently than Blisner, Ill

DS:  They are essentially sequels. They have in common the stage of the town but they explore different things. The physical work, the two books, are also very different. Blisner, Ill. engaged more playfully with various book formats, whereas the new work, Blisner, IL, embraces more of the conventions of a monograph as a place to begin. 

AK:  Much of the landscape depicted in your images of Blisner has arisen from a lack of loyalty shown by major industrial companies who constantly shift their operations from small-towns to off-shore locations.  In what sense was creating a fictional town from an increasingly disaggregated American landscape a method of illustrating the alienation of local neighbourhoods by globalisation? 

DS: The fictive device is deployed as an attempt to understand the mythologising effects of history. Many different places exist in any given region (often, this is really what defines a “region”), but they are understood under their shared locality. The work teases with ideas of generality and specificity much in the same way. Although the work is grounded in a critically that is cautious of the bulldozing effects of globalisation, the fiction is meant to be more critical of something more philosophical; and of course the mechanics of documentary modes of representation. 

AK:  The appearance of your previous book Blisner, Ill in the opening pages of Blisner IL appears to signal a linear progression of time which subsequently becomes fragmented.  Does this mirror the experience of the local population who could previously enjoy steady employment but have now been displaced by unemployment?

DS: That’s an interesting read, but not necessarily. It is meant to establish a chronology, both within the scope of this town, Blisner, and the scope of this project, Blisner. Of course, things slip and don’t adhere to an exacting linearity.

With this question and the previous, I want to note that both of these areas of content, the shift of labor and production across markets, and access to steady work for more rural populations, are important to the work, and are dealt with in different processes. The specific ways of framing the pictures that you mentioned aren’t specifically analogous in that way, though I welcome the read!

AK:  The gap in publication between Blisner Ill, and Blisner IL further underlines the absence and invisibility of towns such as the fictional Blisner which receive infrequent media attention only to be ignored for years at a time.  How did you conceive of Blisner Ill as a framing device for the cycle of memory and forgetting?

DS:  The new book, Blisner, IL, specifically looks at mid-sized post-industrial towns in Southern Illinois and how they memorialize their industrial history, primarily through maintaining their downtown “main street” areas. The result is often pure surface treatment; upon closer examination, it’s clear that the dust has settled a long time ago. 

There is this interesting feedback loop of memory and memorializing, wrapped in a historical amnesia. These towns might erect a statue of a coal miner, to represent the men and women who worked in the mines, as a surrogate for the worker who worked a now-obsolete form of physical labor. But very little of this sponsored information suggests the darker sides of both industrialization and deindustrialization. And of course, what to make of a town that in effect serves as a living memorial, but whose inhabitants are left with the very real task of dealing with a lack of jobs, failing infrastructure, and an estrangement from changing global markets. The title shift between the two books, Ill. to IL, suggests not just a move forward in time (as documented by a postal and political naming convention), but prompts one to consider what has been gained or loss (and how we remember).

AK:  By including spreads from your original book on Blisner in Blisner, Ill, photobooks appear to have reached an almost meta-referential stage in their evolution whereby photographers increasingly pre-suppose an audience already highly versed in the recent history of photobook publishing.  Is this a sign that the market for photobooks is becoming increasingly exclusive?

DS:  I very consciously work with the intention of both creating a fluid narrative arc between projects and imaging an audience engaging with the work for the first time. There is no assumption that the viewer has seen anything I’ve done before, and I’m not too concerned with my intentions as an artist translating clearly 100% of the time, I welcome this kind of subjectivity and think it’s inevitable!

If, as a viewer, you make it to the end of the book, Walter’s essay doubles as it’s own “work,” and as a classic monographic essay, in its didacticism, much in the same way a title might provide/provoke additional information. In this case, he literally explains that the book and newspaper photographs in the beginning of the book come from a previous project. All the information is there, if you want to put together the pieces (and again, there’s no expectation of that either!).

AK:  I thought particularly of the contrast between stereographic and the cinematographic perspectives in your pairing of the movie theatre signage images, displayed on facing pages, contrasting with the two images of the street lights taken seconds apart and arranged on successive pages.  Roger Shattuck has compared these perspectives with cycles of enchantment and disenchantment, does this resonate with the narrative cycle in Blisner, IL?

DS: I’m not familiar with Shattuck, but a book allows you to play in that way. How two images of movie theatre signs (meant to advertise from both directions of the street) create one type of pairing, registering more stereographically (although the signs are different) and how another, the two stop lights (which are photographed at normal exposure and under-exposure for dramatic effect), register more sequentially, or as you said, cinematic. 

AK: What projects are you working on now?

DS: I’m now working on finding ways to extract content from this work for exhibitions, which is challenging and exciting for me. I’m also working on a series of new portraits that deal with queerness, and a script.

Blisner, IL is published by Fourteen-Nineteen and is now available to buy at their online shop.  View more images from the series on Daniel Shea's website here.  All images © Daniel Shea


— Alan Knox