A Lofty Tribute to Barns

David Plowden

David Plowden has always been a photographer who thinks big. Many of his evocative black-and-white pictures celebrate subjects — steam engines, steel mills, steamships, truss bridges — that are remarkable not only for their size but also for their precarious status. Now, at 68, Plowden is focusing on yet another impressive American icon that is vanishing from the scene even as he preserves its homespun majesty on film — the barn.

When he began photographing agricultural buildings in Vermont during the early 1960s, Plowden was haunted by the sense that he was one step ahead of their demise. “Interstate highways were beginning to transform the landscape and the culture,” he recalls, “and it was clear to me that the traditional family farm was on the way out.”

Nationwide, the number of farms has plummeted from well over six million a half-century or so ago to around a third of that today. Farms and farm equipment are much bigger than they used to be, and consequently most of the vintage buildings that once defined our rural landscape have become obsolete. In Wisconsin, Iowa and a number of other states, preservationists are hard at work trying to save them (Smithsonian, August 1989), but too many have long since succumbed to abandonment, dereliction and the wrecker’s ball.

In the mid-1970s Plowden spent several weeks in central Michigan. “That part of the state was filled then with beautiful barns that were being used. They were all over the place. Today only one of the buildings I photographed there is still on a working farm. All of the others have been abandoned.”

No wonder Plowden’s passion for barns is tinged with regret. “There’s such a moving elegance to their simplicity,” he says. “It is the beauty of the commonplace. A barn is an expression of the pride of the people who built it. When we lose one, we’ve lost a part of our history, a part of ourselves.”