McClellan Street in Fort Wayne, Indiana, a three-block-long street just on the edge of the downtown area of one of America's heartland industrial cities, is far away from where I am sitting as I write this in Paris, and a great distance from a world three decades later that includes instantaneous e-mail exchanges, 24-hour cable television, and a certain global modernism that makes things begin to look the same almost wherever one goes. The street seems even further because it no longer exists as a street lined by homes as it was then. Today, the homes of the street have been mostly destroyed and in their place is a large parking lot for the customers and employees of local companies and stores.
Nineteen seventy-three was a time, as anyone alive with an honest memory would remember, of monumental change accompanied by great tumult in American life. The Vietnam War was raging, the Civil Rights Movement was very much alive, and the youth of the country questioned and directly challenged many of the premises of their parents' values and the policies of the nation's political leaders. It was also a time, even in the heartland of America, when asking questions about the foundations of American society was not considered unpatriotic by young people and their peers, but part of one's civic duty. It was also, as I remember it, a time of tension, but of a tension that seemed to be ultimately a force for much creativity.
Like the life of McClellan Street, it was a time of much light and darkness, with one outshining the other depending on how you chose to look at it. Terribly somber and despairing themes, including the war in Southeast Asia, the Watts and Detroit riots, generational conflict, assassinations of leaders--the Kennedys, Dr. King, and Malcolm X--were juxtaposed against the bright, guiding lights and expressions of hope exemplified by symbols such as Dr. King's "Mountain Top" speech, young, intrepid journalists able to question the legitimacy of national leadership with Watergate, young people worldwide standing up to be counted for what seemed right, and songs that have stayed with the heart for a lifetime by groups like The Beatles. Much like the scenes we witnessed daily on McClellan Street, the richness of the times was not always found in the brightness of the highlights, but more often in the rich texture of shadows that covered realities not simple.
I grew up in Fort Wayne and discovered this street one summer day in 1973, as my twin brother, David, and I searched for an elderly man who had been in one of our photographs that had won a prize in a Scholastic photography contest. The only way to receive the prize itself was to get a model release from the man featured in the image. I recall being struck immediately by a special sense of community on this hard-working-class street where every house had a porch and people yelled back and forth. Adults and children played games together on the sidewalk and in the middle of the street. People lived, laughed, and argued out loud, amongst each other.
On that day in 1973, my brother and I decided to photograph the life we found on McClellan Street over the course of most of a year. While the street itself was not particularly different from other streets that surrounded it in the neighborhood, we decided our focus would be on the life of this one street, which offered our project a sense of boundary in time and space. We returned to the street many times a week as well as on weekends, and we soon became recognizable and familiar faces to almost everyone who lived there.
The residents of McClellan Street were largely working-class and blue-collar, though of many different backgrounds and origins. Mostly Caucasian, Appalachian, and Hispanic people occupied two-story homes split into many rental units. In the beginning, David and I shared one camera; one would use it, while the other would sit on a porch and speak to people on the street, and play with, or babysit, their children. Later, we would acquire a second camera so both of us could take pictures at the same time.
In the evenings and on weekends, we would come home and develop our films and make prints in our basement darkroom, and later return to the street with a print to give to the people in the pictures. We liked going to McClellan Street, not because the people there were subjects of some sort of study, but because we really liked to be there and felt lucky to be around the people of McClellan Street, who offered us kinship and camaraderie. Their zest and spirit, in the face of their often tremendous economic struggles, opened our eyes and offered us inspiration and a sense of direction and a roadmap for approaching life.
For the past two decades, I have traveled worldwide, searching for and sharing with others my impressions of the "Family of Man" (an expression and concept of humanity that I embraced from an early age after I was given the great book of images by the same name that was organized by Edward Steichen). With time and experience, I have learned more about some of the many complex realities of the world, its politics, and interplays of power and common humanity. I have learned ever more to what extent the power of photography lies, not in what is said or explained or described, but rather in what can be felt and perceived. And, with time, I have learned that little can be more powerful than the expression of dignity reflected in how people live life with sincerity, generosity, honesty, and grace--all things having little to do with the size of a bank account. I've grown to appreciate more than ever the importance and meaning of life presented as an honest and provocative question, rather than a simplistic and confining answer.
After a long life journey that in some ways has taken me far away from Fort Wayne, Indiana, the publication of this book of photographs by my brother and myself is a tribute to the amazing spirit and rich, honest expression of life that the people of McClellan Street offered us while asking for nothing in return. This period of my life and the people of McClellan Street, Fort Wayne, Indiana, have stayed with me always and have offered my own life's compass an important sense of inspiration and direction. And while 1973 now seems distant, and the miles I have traveled since then many, the time I shared with my brother David and the people of McClellan Street remains very close to my heart.