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Book of the Week: Selected by Arturo Soto

Book Review The Golden City Photographs by Mimi Plumb Reviewed by Arturo Soto "Despite the surplus of ‘Golden Cities’ around the world...Mimi Plumb’s new book opens with numerous spreads of demolition sites and piles of dirt spreading in all directions, taking its time to situate us in the outskirts of the Golden State’s crown jewel, San Francisco..."

The Golden City by Mimi Plumb.
The Golden City
Photographs by Mimi Plumb

STANLEY/BARKER, London, UK, 2021.

Despite the surplus of ‘Golden Cities’ around the world — India, Australia, and Czechia all claim one — Mimi Plumb’s new book opens with numerous spreads of demolition sites and piles of dirt spreading in all directions, taking its time to situate us in the outskirts of the Golden State’s crown jewel, San Francisco. My favorite of these initial images, presumably from the early ’80s, is of an old console television abandoned in open land with an ominous processing plant in the background. The two main elements signal the end of an era, with heavy industry giving way to urbanizations that will become the home of media and technology industries, the last nail in the coffin of a West Coast utopia. We move into the city as the image sequence progresses. An aerial view showing the complex transportation infrastructure and the rejection of horizontal planning implies an immeasurable sprawl that commodifies every aspect of life, with people spending their lives from one store to the next, buying things rather than seeking meaningful social interactions.  

The Golden City combines cityscapes with portraits, including a few featuring a dark-haired man. We first encounter him giving his back to us atop a gabled roof close to a billboard with a giant protruding hand. We return to the rooftop a few pages later, this time from a higher vantage point that reveals the giant hand holding a stack of bills, punching through a bank advertisement. Across the avenue, a Nissan ad induces us to “Think Fast,” leaving the dark-haired man wedged between commercial promises of a better life. The recurring character next appears alongside a blonde couple in a scene with the air of a lazy Sunday. The three of them sit on a couch in a back garden, looking like the predecessors of contemporary hipsters, but without the belabored effort of today’s legion. The young trio might not be as carefree as their attitude suggests, given the baby walker near the edge of the frame. Their attention is occupied by something in the sky, although I would like to think they’re contemplating their future, sensing that the market forces will soon snatch their places of creativity and self-organization. In his last appearance, again on a roof, we finally see the face of the dark-haired man tenderly embracing a young woman from behind. Both wear altered T-shirts and punk hairstyles, the sun harsh on their faces, commanding our attention as if they were celebrities letting their guard down for a candid picture.   

The other images of people in the book, shown mostly partying or otherwise having fun, are similarly deployed with a sense of nostalgia for a time when a bohemian lifestyle was more easily attainable. The colophon informs us the photographs were made between 1984 and 2020, but The Golden City seems to concentrate on the years when the Bay Area transitioned from a haven for intellectuals and free spirits to a corporate one where money and technology command the agenda. From this perspective, the book seems to correlate the destruction, development, or renewal of places with the diminishment of seminal communities that consequently altered the city’s social composition.  

As with her previous publications, Plumb uses images from her vast archives to shape a poetic sequence with an ambiguous narrative. The open relationship between pictures in The Golden City makes it hard to define unequivocally what the book is about. Plumb does not facilitate the interpretive process by giving us essays, titles, or statements, so we must rely on close attention and repeated viewings. While it would be tempting to say it is about how socioeconomic changes have transformed San Francisco, such an explanation would leave out the charged biographical dimension of the work. I can’t offer a satisfactory reason for this — I know neither Plumb nor San Francisco — but I believe the author’s presence is closely felt in many of these pictures, regardless of whether they are of people or places.   

With The Golden City, Plumb has once again crafted an abstract narrative that comes across as sincere, serving to interrogate whom the city is for. Since the primary purpose of cities is function, with the daily grind allowing little room for the kind of romantic notions that attract tourists, it is curious to find an idealized skyline of San Francisco in the most unexpected of places, such as a painting on a window ledge above dirty sheets, pillows, and food containers. The scene has been captured with a flash, making it look like police evidence, although it’s even more evident that someone’s taken comfort in that view, perhaps because it glosses over the difficult living conditions that overwhelm so many, giving him or her a sense of hope instead. The book, overall, achieves something similar.

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Arturo Soto
is a Mexican photographer and writer. He has published the photobooks In the Heat (2018) and A Certain Logic of Expectations (2021). Soto holds a PhD in Fine Art from the University of Oxford, and postgraduate degrees in photography and art history from the School of Visual Arts in New York and University College London.