American Falls is a small town southern Idaho named after a real waterfall called American Falls, on the Snake River, that was long ago destroyed by a dam. Now the town is dying. This is where Seattle photographer Steve Davis grew up. American Falls happens to be named perfectly for this global moment. The town is, no kidding, the seat of Power County. It also happens to be, according to Wikipedia, the first American town to be entirely relocated, in 1925, to create the dam. Davis’s photographs cover a wide range of approaches to documentation, even self-consciously so. The crisp right-hand half of Davis’s photograph of a man sitting alone at a bar with his beer and cigarette could be a stock image in any hard-luck series. But on the left-hand half of the picture, the image dissipates into pure light and reflection, sliding into soft oblivion, or escape. The obdurate brick surface of the bar is seen in another picture, a deadpan portrait of its exterior under a gray sky. The titles of the pictures are divided into types: fields, landscapes, people’s names, nouns. Field #2 and Field #3 are a nice pair; #2 is an idyllic shot of a green field bursting with tiny white flowers (the famous Idaho potatoes) under a blue sky; #3 is a dose of artifice that’s more real. What looks like plain old grass reflects an almost neon sheen as a stream of fertilizer falls on it, the stream stretching across the top of the picture like a coal-dust rainbow. The scale is unsettlingly unclear, as in Landscape #13, a picture of toy trucks in a tilted sandbox that, because of the angle, look about to drive onto the real highway above them. An old woman and a young man wait for a parade—we see only their backs and the empty street. Two horses lean into the picture frame, a row of electrical towers standing between them—their replacements. High-school cheerleaders perform overly enthusiastically in front of an anti-drug mural of a snarling dog (“he only bites…meth consumes!”). A karaoke stage waiting for a singer is backed by American flags, as if singing in someone else’s voice were the national art form. And Davis gives formal, not just narrative, gifts: The prom court is a blur of colors beneath a crystal-clear moon. An illuminated cross is starting its shift, taking over from the sun, casting an impossibly beautiful blue light on a desolate spot where a silver light jumps back from the windows of lonely houses. Davis’s version of American Falls is not anytown, but in many ways it might also be the place you left, or are thinking about leaving, and you might recognize it. There’s a man sitting at a desk in front of an imposing safe, but the safe door is just flung open and he sort of stares off. He’s the mayor.
-Jen Graves, The Stranger
As American Falls fades from my life, I find myself vainly attempting to lock its memory to a position of tenderness and beauty–backdropped by allergy ridden summers and iced over winters; of cleaning steamy french fry furnaces one hour, and frigid potato freezers the next.
Overlooking southeastern Idaho’s Snake River–tamed and fattened by a massive dam, illuminated by brilliant sunsets–American Falls seems to be dying a death that is as slow as it is unspectacular. The local businesses of the past are all but gone, devoured by monsters like Walmart–25 miles from town. Agriculture, the primary source of the town’s economy has also felt the corporate bite. Family farms that made Idaho known for their “Famous Potatoes” are disappearing in favor of giant farms controlled by international conglomerates. A future coal gasification plant for fertilizer production is seen by many as the town’s best hope.
I moved to Idaho with my family when I was ten. (The joke is) none of my family members who chose to stay in Idaho got out alive. The economy, agricultural pollution, the wind and the cold make this town a place not for the weak or faint hearted. In spite of the challenges that face American Falls, people make lots of babies. They go to churches, go to bars, and many, while still young and independent– just go; as did the town’s namesake–destroyed by the very dam that irrigates the crops that feed us. –Steve Davis 2011
On the New York Times Lens
On the Sundance Channel