In March 2011, Webster City’s main employer, Electrolux, shut down and moved to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. The company and its predecessors had made washing machines in the small Iowa town of 8,000 under various brand names since 1937, and then it was gone. Nearly all of a workforce that once topped 2,000 was laid off. It’s not the first community to end up in a tough spot, and it won’t be the last.
This is a story we’ve heard before. Yet the lack of novelty in the primary storyline has allowed me to direct my gaze elsewhere, beyond a simple chronicling of events. Webster City isn’t unique, but as an anecdotal emblem of contemporary small-town Midwestern life, it’s fascinating. Over the past several years, through some dozen trips, I’ve embedded myself in daily life in Webster City, striving to capture the character-driven drama and vague sense of anxiety common to such places. It’s a middle-class town slowly losing that distinction. This project is in part an attempt to understand the changes taking place among the middle class in America today, as the Great Recession fades while few feel confidence in their economic future.
It’s this uncertainty that seems to undermine the quality of life we all seek. Many of my pictures depict longstanding routines and daily activities with an implied or inherent transience, highlighting the fact that that any comfort in the present suggests no assurance of the future.
Yet despite my efforts, that may not be what is really reflected in my photographs. If I’m honest with myself, what kept drawing me back was the chance to live in an alternate reality. What I see in my own pictures is an outsider’s view, the perspective of someone who enters the town like putting on a costume as I attempt to become a local for a week or two at a time, all the while knowing I will leave again. My affection for Webster City is real, but very different, from what would be felt by someone who lived there all his life. At heart, this project is a complicated way of asking “what if”? What if I had been raised in such a place—a small rural town in the Midwest, instead of an East Coast suburb—with no plan or desire to leave? What would I have missed? Or gained?