What, exactly, does Tom Arndt take pictures of? In the first pages of Home, the new collection of Arndt’s photos, Garrison Keillor, George Slade, and Arndt himself try to puzzle it out.
Arndt: “I have photographed county fairs, the State Fair, small-town parades and festivals, the Minneapolis Aquatennial and the St. Paul Winter Carnival, the national bicentennial, street demonstrations, political conventions, funerals, weddings, birthday parties, and on and on.”
Slade: “Tom’s brand of street photography, a branch of social documentary pursued in public spheres, has assumed the collaborative, slower qualities of portraiture.”
|home by tom arndt. published by the university of minnesota press (2009). $49.95. arndt will appear march 12 at 7:30 p.m. at the virginia street swedenborgian church (170 virginia st., st. paul) for a discussion sponsored by common good books.|
Keillor: “Tom Arndt has created a beautiful collection of pictures of Minnesotans hanging around waiting for something to happen.”
And so he has. Home, the images in which span the past four decades, is the latest in a series of recent releases of coffee-table photography collections documenting the lives of ordinary Minnesotans in the 20th century. The Face of Minnesota features John Szarkowski’s masterful, painterly images; Suburban World collects Irwin Norling’s unpretentious snapshots of mid-century Bloomington; and Home lands somewhere in the middle. Arndt is more self-consciously an artist than Norling was, but his eye for the drama of everyday life makes his work more akin to Norling’s than to the epic visions of Szarkowski.
As a documentarian, Arndt has a generous spirit and creates images of tremendous empathy. Home is completely accessible, a book of local history for everyone who’s ever groaned at having to sit through a slide show of vacation photos with no people in them. Arndt is all about the people; as with an album of family photos, we smile at the familiarity of his subjects while noting the telling period details that creep in around the edges of the frame. My favorite photo in the book may be Three guys, Portland Avenue, Minneapolis, 1984: a trio of black boys walking in phalanx, one carrying a ghetto blaster on his shoulder, one with a squint and a skewed ball cap, one with mirrored shades and a striped Penguin polo shirt. When Eazy-E died, a part of these guys died with him.
The kind of purple prose we get from Slade (“His practice endeavors to evoke and portray life’s most salient features rather than capture its idiosyncratic moments and incidental alignments in hopes that some unseen relationship has an alchemical effect within the printed picture”) kills the joy of these photos; thankfully, the body of the book allows us to enjoy large reproductions of Arndt’s images sans text (save the photos’ plainly descriptive titles), with brief comments by Arndt collected at the volume’s conclusion. This is a collection to visit and revisit for its documentation and celebration of the real Minnesota, the Minnesota we know and love.
Jay Gabler is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.
Photo by Tom Arndt, from Home.