By the time Dominic Lippillo became a teenager, he had lived in 15 different houses, most of them in the rust belt region of the American Midwest. Though born in Dearborn, Michigan, Lippillo grew up in Ohio, moving from house to house in the area around Youngstown. There, he lived in an American landscape that few care to memorialize, let alone remember.
Lippillo’s Stories We Tell Ourselves series can hardly be called a romantic portrayal of the American scene. Barren, even sullen, landscapes, the images are brought to life by the intrusion of a figure, one that both literally and figuratively does not seem to belong. The figures in the images are cut from found photos and imposed on the tableau. They stand out, though, not as intruders, but as strangely familiar tropes. An inquisitive, maybe gossipy neighbor woman. A child exploring nature. A man, midday, crossing a road. If they are not native to the scene, they are nonetheless at home there, like ghosts haunting a wasteland.
Lippillo aims to capture a landscape that, as he says, “can be anywhere,” and part of the success of the photographs is their ability to evoke familiarity despite their generic Americana appearance. The scenes could come from rural Pennsylvania, West Virginia, or even Arkansas or Oklahoma. That some of the images come from where he now lives, in rural Mississippi, suggests that he has found a way to bridge geography—that he has identified and conveyed a fact of American life that transcends place even as it requires it. The photographs recall all the places we drive past on our road trips, speeding toward our slice of the American Dream.
The use of found photos as part of Lippillo’s process drives home this point. Lippillo and his wife scavenge photos in antique stores and junk shops, and receive others from former students who know his interest vernacular imagery. Other images have been culled from his wife’s family albums. In all cases, Lippillo seeks out nonspecific figures, those whose identities are unclear but whose body language suggests that they belong somewhere. They have to be distinctive, but they cannot be particular or so wed to the source photograph that they are meaningless without their original background. Once excised from their original image, they must become universal.
Lippillo starts, however, by photographing landscapes. He prefers space without strong shadows or sharp light. He recalls a childhood of overcast skies and diffuse light, and he crafts images that are largely devoid of extreme contrast. Shades of brown and gray dominate, and differences in color are tonal. He uses subtle shifts in hue, even seeking out fog and mist, in order to evoke the fuzzy edges of memory. The landscapes he photographs are not dramatic. Nor are they expansive. They are subdued, quiet, even joyless.
Images such as “Pond” illustrate this quality. In the photograph, a boy splashes across of pond, his feet miraculously dancing across the surface of the water. The image might recall summertime and the carefree days of childhood, but is instead dark, brooding, and mysterious. One senses not the boundless joy of a young boy swimming in the late afternoon sun, but instead a child finding his way across a dark pond, curious certainly, maybe even engaged and animated, but hardly carefree. Similarly, in “Power Lines,” a child seemingly wanders through the fog across a road. The image is anxiety-provoking, full of mystery and even foreboding. If the child is safe, he/she nonetheless appears lost or abandoned.
That may be at the heart of Lippillo’s America. The photographs remind us of the places we have abandoned. Junk yards, old fence lines, lumberyards, satellite dish distributors. They are places that illustrate hope that has been lost, old industries and places that have been supplanted by new industry, new technologies, new American Dreams. In abandoning those places, however, we have also abandoned the people yoked to them. Lippillo’s photographs show, as he says, “ordinary people in unremarkable landscapes” that nonetheless have stories. Those stories are hardly front page news, but they are persistent, implacable, and lingering at the edge of American consciousness. Like the old woman in Lippillo’s image “Railroad Crossing,” the stories beg for something to return and bring energy and vitality back to abandoned lives. What we all know is that they never will.
This article first appeared in Issue 10.
Roger Thompson is Senior Editor for Don't Take Pictures. His features have appeared in The Atlantic.com, Quartz, Raw Vision, The Outsider, and many others. He currently resides on Long Island, NY, where he is a professor at Stony Brook University.