HE WASN’T IN the photos, though in retrospect I think he would have liked to have been.
Instead, on the evening we met, the photographer Robbie Brindley, sitting across a booth from me at a Waffle House midway between Little Rock and Hot Springs, was drinking coffee, looking over the sheets of photo paper scattered across and smothering the laminated menus, telling me about the fading town of Mountain Pine.
Owing to the blown-out quality of the photographs, the starkness of the black and white tones, the town felt very far, though in reality it was close, just west of Hot Springs, and the photos had been taken just a year before. It was difficult to say whether the mood of the photos, the melancholy, was a product of the fluorescent lights overhead or the images themselves. However, seeing the images collected on the table made me think that the town would have been a gray place even if the photos had been made in color.
There was no doubt a great deal to be said about the people who appeared there, and he said a great deal about them, but for the moment, he was the focus, the vital element—it was his story to tell. And as he remembered what it had been like to grow up there, what it had been like to go back more than a dozen years later, the town and everything about it came into sharper relief as the din of clattering silverware and people eating breakfast food settled even further into the background.
Although the time he’d spent there had been relatively brief, just seven years of grade school before his parents pulled him out to homeschool him, his memories of the place were clear. He remembered the first time he’d gone, bused out there for kindergarten from Hot Springs, smelling the smoke from the mill, seeing the train pass so near the school yard that you could hit it with a football. There was smoke, there was fog, there were water sprinklers, there was industry. It was during those years he’d gotten into punk music and skateboarding. He’d gotten his first kiss from a girl who, as he described her, lived in a trailer with her crack-head brother and mother who’d been married “like 20 times.”
“It felt very American to me as a kid,” he said. “It was like, look at these people, like, very blue collar—very tough, very quick to say f*ck you. They just did their thing and didn’t say anything about it.”
That sense of awe, if you could call it that, only crystallized as the years went by, reaching a high point in 2006, when, after nearly 80 years, the mill that had for so long been the lifeblood and foundation of the town succumbed to the effects of a long economic decline and left the town. At the time, there were more than 300 people employed at the mill, most of whom, it seems fair to say, were drawn from the town, whose population now hovers around 770. As he saw it, this was a place that had lost everything, but yet when he looked at them he saw a group of people who had never allowed life to keep them down for long.
“I didn’t realize I was in love with it, and I was,” he said. “When the mill left, I was like, This place does not feel like home anymore. I need to do something over there.”
Then: “How’s your waffle?”
On that February evening, the young man sitting across from me wore a blue jean jacket and white cowboy hat, an outfit that remains the only one I’ve seen him wear. He was 25, a young man, though he looked older—and acted even older still, prizing comfort to the point of intractability, describing himself as the sort of person who holds fast to what he knows and keeps a dishwashing job for three years.
It seemed all the more remarkable, then, that he would have pushed himself to a place so far removed from his comfort zone. But he’d done so for a good reason. The reason he’d gone back to Mountain Pine after having been gone for so many years was because he recognized in that place a quality he hoped to find in his own life: He wanted proof that it was possible to get up again after being knocked down.
“At the time,” he said, “I was having a really hard time financially with my wife in school, and I’m working some shitty job, but I get to be a photographer, so that’s cool. And then I’ve got all these family problems, like my parents are about to lose their house because my dad got hurt, and they’re teetering on the edge. My grandma died and she had been living with my parents. My mom’s having a complete nervous breakdown, and I’m like, I don’t know how to deal with any of this.”
With that, in early 2015, he went back. He spent several months worth of Saturdays walking the streets, throwing out an old football coach’s name and speaking for hours with people who were doing nothing, before asking if he could make their photos. They’d give him a queer look, eyeing the bulky medium format camera that looks nothing like the cameras we have nowadays—a relic that might’ve been used around the time the mill was first operating. It was loaded with enough film to shoot a family or so a day.
In the evenings, he’d go home and work in the crawl space of the house he then shared with his wife. For hours on end, he’d work in that unventilated space, the chemicals crystallizing on his nose hairs which made for chemically smelling snot, all the time watching for copperheads. There was no controlling for temperature or humidity and the tub he was using was the wrong size, making for a frustrating and time-consuming ordeal that often yielded disappointing results.
“It felt like how I felt,” he said. “It felt and looked how I felt. Going out there, I was looking for peace and understanding of being in a bad situation. And when I got there, people are dealing with it like anybody would. Like, they’re drinking, talking, having a beer and hanging out with their friends when they can. But they’re just in a worse place than most people. It’s strange.”
As he elaborated on the particulars of each photo, it became clear that he could tell these’s people’s stories—about arson and cancer and collapsed trailers and their children—but he didn’t know their names. They were photos of people he’d met by chance; they were proxies for his memories. As he spoke about them, I got the sense he hadn’t been terribly concerned with the outcome: He wasn’t writing anything down, and there were many, many failed photographs. The purpose of the photos wasn’t an invitation for the viewer to visit, nor, for that matter, a strictly documentary look at this community on the brink of becoming something else or fading away entirely. If anything, to see those images felt like seeing a reflection of who he was in those months.
It was left unsaid, but I think he wanted to understand how this place that had lost so much, a place that he considered to have been so formative in his own self realization, a place that seemed in some ways to have mirrored his own difficulties, had managed to remain standing. And, along those same lines, he was looking to reconnect with a part of himself that might have been lost, too, when the mill left. For a time, it had been home. It had been more than a memory. As we parted ways, I wondered if it still was.
“These were all taken in the black quarters. These are the same family. He (left) was actually going to school in Conway. So, he was getting out. She (right)—she’s pretty young. She wants to be a model in Atlanta. And she (center) was in the military for a long time. I think their grandparents worked at the mill, but they didn’t? Like, she joined the military. Like normal.”
“They were working on their car when I walked up. I was like, Can I take y’all’s photo? Like, explained myself. And it was like, they didn’t care. He’s just kind of nonchalant, things happen. And [the kids] weren’t like kids. They were tougher than kids.”
“This guy’s name is Jim. I do remember that. He was living in a trailer. I think he used to drive a log truck. He used to do something like that. And he was just living off his small pension, too. And he had his trailer paid off, but I don’t think he had insurance on it. Like, home owner’s insurance. And a tree fell on their trailer, right after they got it paid off. So, they were living in the trailer with the roof caved in and stuff, him and his wife. I took a photo of both of them, but it didn’t come out. … I talked to them for like five hours, him and his wife. He told me all about everything. It was beautiful.”
“I don’t remember his name. This is where I wish I would have had people with me. He was fishing, and I was taking his portrait, talking to him, and he owned a trucking company, and it went bankrupt when everything collapsed [in 2008]. And he’s just living there, his kids all moved away. Just fishes. I was like, this project is going to be terrible on my heart.”