- America in a Trance by Niko J. Kallianiotis
America in a Trance includes forty stunning images by photographer Niko J. Kallianiotis. Four powerful essays supplement the photos—one by Kallianiotis, one each by fellow photographers Luke Wynne and Parker Reinecker, and one by journalist Seamus McGraw.
The images come from across Pennsylvania, depicting, as Wynne puts it, “distant figures surrounded by the broken architecture of the Pennsylvania Rust Belt.” Almost half center on the anthracite coal region—the counties of Schuylkill, Luzerne, Lackawanna, Columbia, Northumberland, and Carbon. The pictures pop with color, often pastel hues. Storefronts, homes, and buildings—plus, of course, the people who inhabit them—are each positioned to tell their own rich story. Stories of life amidst death, of enduring community in a place defined by isolation, and of the people who did all of the work left behind by the people who get all of the credit.
McGraw, I think, says it best: in this book, “you can feel the weight of loss and isolation, you can see how the pain of generations has weathered them. . . . But if you peer a little deeper, you can also see the resilience that gave them the strength to survive and, at times, even prosper.” He continues, “there’s pride in these photographs. There’s a sense of purpose and of place, even if you have to burrow through the sadness that surrounds them.”
One image features two men who appear to be in their fifties—one on the sidewalk in a wheelchair, the other standing just off the curb holding a bag of food—their eyes affixed on what appears to be a Pontiac Tempest from the 1960s. The car has whitewall tires. It is hunter green and freshly waxed. It’s so shiny that it reflects the nearby parking meter. The stuff of dreams. But the rest of the photo is gritty, if not ruinous. There’s a run-down garage in the background, oil stains in the parking lot. The meter is rusted, its pole bent. And the car’s hood is propped open. Dream delayed.
On that battered garage is a picture of Donald Trump. It doesn’t look like official campaign material—his hair is highlighter yellow, almost cartoonish. It glows off the brick façade. “UNITE & FIGHT FOR TRUMP,” it reads. “Of course there is,” the partisans who’ve written this place off as “Trump Country” will mumble. But Kallianoitis—who hails from Greece but has called Pennsylvania [End Page 240] home since the early 1990s—knows better. This place holds nuance— emotional nuance, especially—and Kallianiotis effectively uses his camera and creative eye to capture it. He documents people taking pride in the little they have; the remnants of people who took pride in the little they had; and imagery of some desperate but no less respectable efforts to have something in the future.
Photographers and students of Pennsylvania history alike will greatly appreciate this book. But I’m imagining it on the coffee tables of working-class homes across Pennsylvania, where it will create a scene straight out of a Kallianiotis photo: America in a Trance’s crisp, eye-catching red and white cover juxtaposed against drink rings, ash trays, or whatever particular signs of life—and struggle— happen to be present in the living room. There, fulfilling the photographer’s wish, it will certainly spur “uninhibited conversation.” [End Page 241]