Early on in Mimi Plumb’s book The Golden City is an image of a car tire washed up on a beach, its rubber covered in a mixture of wet sand and seaweed. Having just been tossed out by the surf, it shines as we would expect. Yet the longer we look, the less natural that shine seems — the textures of tire and sand appear increasingly unfamiliar. The picture is full of difficult, uncomfortable beauty. The Golden City presents a sequence of images that are lyrical and clear-eyed in equal measure, communicating Plumb’s exasperation with a world being senselessly spoiled before our eyes.
Mainly comprised of photographs Plumb took in and around San Francisco in the 1980s and ’90s, The Golden City looks at the dissonance between an expanding metropolis and its surrounding environment; between those people destabilized by such changes and those responsible for them. The book begins on the outskirts of the city, where faint traces of nature are framed by landfills and infrastructure, and then gradually moves inward, through vacant lots and neighborhoods, and into a downtown walled in by glass and steel. The people who do appear in the opening pages are few, and are often seen from behind, rendering them anonymous and remote. Though they are sharply defined within the frame, they seem characterized by displacement and uncertainty.
Plumb’s city lacks grandeur, and the people who wander its streets or gather downtown seem to do so aimlessly. We see images of construction and demolition, of high rises blown open and rebar jutting out from split concrete. Graffitied walls call for the removal of President Ronald Reagan; they mention the El Salvadoran military dictatorship; they express collective dread over the possibility of nuclear annihilation. When these pictures gesture toward levity or tenderness, it is against a backdrop of existential concern about what shape the future will have.
Plumb’s previous two books, Landfall (TBW, 2018) and The White Sky (Stanley/Barker, 2020), anticipate The Golden City in important ways. The atmosphere of anxiety, and the threats of nuclear war and global warming, that weave their way through The Golden City are everywhere in Landfall (all the photographs were taken at the same time). The White Sky prefigures many of the sequencing strategies in The Golden City, as it deftly moves between linear narrative and elliptical suggestion. The Golden City draws upon both of these elements in its linear progression through space and time, and in the way that even the most innocuous pictures have a tense and uncertain undercurrent.
As the book shifts from day to night in its final third, a series of nocturnal pictures — many portraits, nearly all taken indoors at clubs and parties — project a brittle decadence: the people party and pursue pleasure, but their faces betray anxiety and unease. Plumb’s flash contributes mightily to this effect: it activates a psychological dimension in the frame by throwing the subtleties of their expressions into relief.
Plumb uses the structure of the book to emphasize the materially distinct social realities that exist in this city and those like it. They are pressed together in this book, next to one another but still separate, much as they may be on the crowded city streets Plumb has photographed. The challenging beauty of The Golden City is that it prompts readers to consider the commonalities between this city to those we live in today, without resorting to exposition or polemic. Within this poetic space we can savor, on the very last page, the light that may still fall upon a ruined landscape, almost to the point of redeeming it.
The Golden City by Mimi Plumb (2022) is published by Stanley/Barker and is available in bookstores and online.