It's easy to lose track of all the Springfields. They populate the United States' landscape as the American ur-town – ubiquitous, instantly recognizable, yet mysteriously opaque in their sameness. Everywhere and nowhere, the very name seems to crystallize the American town. After all, there is a reason the town in The Simpsons is called Springfield. Michael Abrams' Welcome to Springfield is a startling collection of vernacular and found imagery that takes us into the dark heart of a fictitious Springfield of his own creation. Shifting through private and collective memories, Abrams reveals the mundane reality and repressed fantasies at the heart of a prototypical American town.
From the enigmatic cover image of a family wearing hand-made masks to the images of smiling debutantes, the book's images constantly alternate between the visible surface and unspoken underbelly of Springfield. While there is no clear or apparent narrative to Abrams book, the juxtapositions and editing moves us in and out of a secret world of closely guarded and impolite secrets. The book brings together private nudes, backyard family portraits, goofy personal shots, rude family album outtakes and photobooth snaps to reveal the tumultuous id of a typical post-war American town. Most of the images are not shocking, but we are also given the occasionally jolt – a woman in leather bondage, completely bound and gagged; a woman playing dress up and coyly posing with a gun; or a nude male standing outside with a bag over his head. Images are presented full-bleed and actual size, with occasional color overlays, and in their original discolored, faded state. All is not completely dark in Abrams world, but the moments of joy and levity are tempered with sexual, racial and psychological drama. This is not Mayberry.
Throughout the book there are also numerous smart design details, like the inclusion of antique painted wallpaper, that suggest we need only peel away the flowers and a new world will emerge. Almost completely hidden in the back of the book is a small pamphlet with numerous erotic images of women posing for lovers. A group shot of three laughing men in the beginning sets the tone. The women enclosed are clearly trophies and conquests to be shared – moments of intimacy quickly and covertly transformed into lurid social currency. There is also a three-page typed story by Gerry Badger inserted into the book on folded paper. Badger's contribution about one of the town's residents is an odd, but affecting, short story that reads like a cross between the local police blotter and a Philip Roth novel.
Excluding the protagonist of Badger's story, Aaron Miller, Nadine is one of the book's few, if only, protagonists. We first see Nadine in her yearbook photograph, but she is referenced in numerous places. Generic and effusive notes of praise to Nadine are written on the back of photographs of other women from her own collection. A stereotypical high school sweetheart and prom queen, Nadine is the idealized American girl. Judging from the notes and their admiring tone, she stands for the aspirational longing of many women in this town. One woman even promises to name her first daughter Nadine. Like the wallpaper, Nadine unwittingly represents the pristine façade of post-war America that covers the darker reality of Abram's Springfield. Whereas portraits like Nadine's and her classmates are meant to be shared, most of the rest of the images were clearly taken in private, placed in shoeboxes rather than albums, and rarely, if ever, shared.
Rooted in their own time yet given new context and meaning, Abrams has woven his own tale from these disparate images. Appropriation is an age-old artists tool that can yield marvelous results, and Michael Abram's book is a prime example. Finally, I'm reminded of Tolstoy's famous quote that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In Abrams' Springfield, he has created his own seemingly unhappy and dysfunctional family, or town, as the case may be, and in doing so revealed the uncanny, haunting underbelly of post-war America.
Adam Bell is a photographer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He received his MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and his work has been exhibited and published internationally. He is the co-editor and co-author, with Charles H. Traub and Steve Heller, of The Education of a Photographer (Allworth Press, 2006). His writing has appeared in Foam Magazine, Lay Flat and Ahorn Magazine. He is currently on staff and faculty at the School of Visual Arts' MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department. His website and blog are adambbell.com and adambellphoto.blogspot.com.