The cover of Landfall—its gilt graphic, milk-white color, and medieval font—holds the promise of a child’s fairy tale, belying the book’s interior of darker stirrings and an uneasy narrative of a future more dystopic than happy ending. Mimi Plumb’s debut photobook tells the story of a 1980s downward societal spiral, presciently and uncannily forecasting the topical atmosphere of our time—the zeitgeist of general malaise, unease and discouragement—in a distinctly contemporary way. The title also deftly upends the sense of hopeful homecoming implicit in the meaning of the word ‘landfall’: land first seen or reached at a journey’s end.
Plumb acknowledges that the work is resonant of images and narratives of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales that were part of her childhood. The book’s text begins: “I remember having insomnia for a time when I was 9 years old. My mother told me there might be a nuclear war.” That threat reappears in these photos of toy tanks; of four men sitting on a beach, nonchalantly watching a fire on a pier; newspapers and refuse slammed against a fence; a soldier in camouflage gently holding the back of a boy’s head as a woman (his mother?) stands in front of weaponry.
Plumb has been acknowledged for earlier work documenting Hispanic field workers and organizers, like the fabled Cesar Chavez, campaigning for trade union rights, as well as the spreading suburbs of California’s East Bay region. Her capacity for creating tender, vulnerable and raw portraits of women comes to the forefront for the first time in Landfall. Unease is apparent here, too, in the way that these women connect, sometimes tentatively, to their immediate environment.
A young woman seen only from the side, her hair hiding her face, professionally attired and clutching a beer bottle, is typical of how Plumb’s images can look ambiguous and out of context. The woman is alone, leaning against a wall, with no indication of a party or social participation. In another image, a girl wearing a lace-edged dress angles a white dress in front of her face, obliterating herself. Many of the book’s strange juxtapositions seem wholly incompatible with each other; there is an odd conflation between the naturalistic, happenstance and off-kilter.
A burned-out landscape portrays devastation. A black dog isolated in a bleached-out canyon that looks like it’s in the Ice Age seems apocalyptic and menacing. Interleaved with war’s prototypical mainstays such as tanks and missiles are the back of a girl, who in brushing her curtain of hair echoes the shroud, the waterfall of hair—silvered by Plumb’s flash—covering the back of the woman on the back cover. The accidental effects created by using the flash off camera add to the sense of disquiet in the photographs, and reflect Plumb’s feeling of the world’s being off-kilter.
Not applying the flash directly on top of the subject allows for shadows to take shape off to the left or at the bottom of the frame. This technique makes for unusual kinds of shapes that add another presence to her photographs and heighten their sense of foreboding.
“The portraits really are self-portraits,” Plumb reveals, “Which is why I don’t let you know more about the people I’m photographing.” Her subjects are obfuscated, often vehicles for her own angst. “I very much wanted to express the psychological feeling I had,” she says, “And that’s why I made the portraits. Instead of what a young girl would tell you about her life, I was looking to say something about how I felt about my world.”
Plumb says that the most alarming thing she felt in the 80s, and what drove her to want to make this particular work, was climate change. “We called it global warning then,” she says. “And it was very alarming. It had the finality that if we destroy the climate, we won’t survive as a species. It took me back to Mom and the war and that anxiety.” She adds that economic disparity was something else that concerned her. Making portraits was a way of expressing the anxiety that she and her friends felt, addressing their concerns while simultaneously photographing a changing environment.
Yet Plumb doesn’t feel that she takes portraits, calling it more of “an intuitive desire to capture these moments that are full of tension and anxiety, and abstract them in some way.” Her flash does that, too, freezing those moments. Looking for things she had never seen before in portraits was central to her approach. Plumb says what interests her is the way the strange gestures she captured—showing how someone connects to their environment—create a sense of being out of balance. She explains, “Most of my pictures are fairly ambiguous if taken out of context.”
Plumb’s book may not offer a reprieve from a fairy tale derailed—the painful exile from safety in her and her subjects’ childhoods. But in its intriguing captures of strange yet simple gestures and the mystery implicit in off-kilter moments—in the intensely atmospheric experience she creates—is the reminder that such aesthetic representations can function in ways both unsettling and illuminating.