Former Joliet resident and photojournalist is 'preserving' rural America'
Since 1995, former Joliet resident Vincent Johnson has documented what he calls on Lost Americana website "the ruins left behind after the golden age of rural America."
He hopes to publish his works in a book next year. A documentary is also in his plans.
Johnson, now of Chicago, has traveled to more than 24 states, photographing what are, in many cases, remnants of the United States' agricultural society. As these farming communities disappear, he said, so does the culture of the people who worked and lived there.
"The vision that comes to most people's mind when talking about rural and small town America, is that of large families working on farms with big red barns and parades down Main Streets in small towns filled with Mom and Pop stores," Johnson wrote on his website.
"However, now many communities are closer to ghost towns and ruins. Only unlike the pyramids and the Great Wall these icons of the peak of America's agriculture society, as well as the people who lived when they were thriving, are quickly disappearing and will soon just be another part of Lost Americana."
Born and raised in Joliet, Johnson's "Lost Americana" project has its roots at the former Joliet Catholic High school and a journalism elective Johnson took during his sophomore year.
According to Johnson, the guidance counselor at the time said, "Hey, I know you all want to be sports writers, but the world needs photographers, too." So Johnson switched to photography and enjoyed it, but lost the use of the camera when he graduated, since he had to return it to the school.
"I missed it, so I bought a used camera at the Camera House in Joliet," Johnson said. "And I took photography as an elective [at Joliet Junior College] to fill in some credit hours."
Eventually Johnson wound up at Columbia College in Chicago where he majored in photojournalism. He is currently a commercial photographer and photojournalist with Vincent David Johnson Photography.
But Johnson developed his interest in the United States farming culture a little more randomly.
"I would drive around Joliet in the late 90s and see abandoned farms that would be subdivisions pretty soon," Johnson said. "I wondered why they left and why no one was fixing them up...I started to find a certain beauty in these old abandoned barns and farms and started driving west of Joliet and south of Joliet taking photos of them."
As Johnson said on his website, his "Lost Americana" project began with a "used 35mm SLR camera in a photography class at Joliet Junior College and a handful of black and white photos of an old barn." It has since become "thousands of digital images, over 100 rolls of 35mm film, and another 100 plus sheets of 4x5 film."
By 2008, Johnson was researching the decline of rural United States over the last 50 years, which included talking to people who were part of those communities, he said. For specific information on particular states and/or communities, visit the map on the "Lost Americana" website of places Johnson's visited and click on specific states.
Johnson shares his images on his website and through social media, especially Instagram.
"I've got 13,000 followers now," Johnson said.
Having preserved, via camera, so many "beautiful places," Johnson's big question is this: How do we stop it? Or rather, how does one preserve these shrinking rural towns of 1,500 to 2,000 people before they disappear altogether?
Perhaps his upcoming book and documentary might hold some answers.
For information, visit www.LostAmericana.com.
Below, all photos are from Johnson's "Lost Americana" series. Commentary is Johnson's.