In Small Town, U.S.A., Everyone Is a Somebody

"When a small town gets so small that a photographer can round up all of its residents and get them into one close-up picture, you have a town small enough to be the punchline of a joke. As in the famous 'My town was so small that nobody bothered to use their turn signals because everyone knew which way you were going anyway' type of joke. In a town this small, you have to learn to laugh at yourself: there is nobody else to do it for you."

So writes Garrison Keillor in his introduction to Our Smallest Towns: Big Falls, Blue Eye, Bonanza, & Beyond, a work by photographer Dennis Kitchen, published by Chronicle Books. In his panoramic group photographs, Kitchen captures what Keillor lovingly portrays in words.

An urban New Yorker, Kitchen is fascinated by people who choose to live in tiny, isolated places where no one is anonymous and everyone is important. Starting at the U.S. Census Bureau, he located the least-populated incorporated place in each state such towns can usually levy taxes and establish a government. For four years he photographed the residents and interviewed them about how they make their towns work.

Kitchen's interest dates from childhood visits to his grandfather in Argusville, North Dakota (pop. 161). "My grandpa had been mayor for years," recalls Kitchen. But he was also in charge of public works. "Once a year he would hook up the grader and climb aboard his tractor and level off the eight gravel roads that ran through town."

For city folks it is a comfort that there are still places where everyone is known. "As isolated as their towns seem to be," Keillor writes, the people are ". . . apt to feel more connected to things than, say, a New Yorker does, who would hardly dare dream that he or she could make a big difference in the city, whereas in a one-dog town, every time you mow the grass, it's urban renewal."

By Marlane A. Liddell

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