Rob Friedman’s Danville: Strangely Familiar

A photographer returns to his hometown in southern Virginia. The textile mill and tobacco company have closed, but plenty of local spirits and shades remain.

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Rob Friedman’s photographs of Danville, Virginia, presented here, are the result of week-long visits to his hometown, our hometown, in recent summers.  It’s a small slice of an evolving portfolio, a stereoscopic view: Danville as seen through the eyes of both a native son and an accomplished photographer who left decades ago.

Rob’s photographs defy easy description, at least by me. Some say that photography takes the familiar and offers a different perspective. The late John Szarkowski, former Director of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, who acquired Rob’s work for the museum collection, said that photographer Garry Winogrand’s best pictures “were not illustrations of what he had known, but new knowledge.” That thought could apply well to what you see here. Like Winogrand’s pictures, these are made with traditional cameras and film, developed and printed in his darkroom.

Rob has been a working, exhibiting photographer for 30 years. Since 1993, he’s been teaching black and white photography at Miami Palmetto Senior High School, Miami, Florida; in 2002 he received the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts “Distinguished Teacher in the Arts” award for his work there. 

Beginning in 2007, Rob’s been returning to Virginia every summer with his camera. “It had been a very long time since I’d spent much time in Danville,” he said. “It’s both familiar and strange. I never paid much attention to the tobacco warehouses while growing up but now think they are magnificent….I keep going back to Craghead Street and that area.”

Rob Friedman
The tobacco warehouse district, Danville, Virginia, 2008

Danville (pop. 42,000), in southcentral Virginia, might be considered a rural city.
For many years now, like lots of other towns its size, Danville has been experiencing a significant post-industrial
decline. The unemployment rate is almost 14%, and according to Census population estimates, the town is 12% smaller than it was ten years ago. When Rob and I were in
elementary school in the 1950s, Danville was a robust small city built
on a foundation of textiles and tobacco. The Dan River cotton mills
employed 17,000 people at that time, and both Dan River and Dibrell
Brothers Tobacco Company were among the Fortune 500. After years of
downsizings, restructurings, and mergers, today both companies are gone.

These pictures, taken recently, manage to convey something of what the town was like 50 years ago, too. “The neighborhood pictures often vaguely remind me of stuff,” Rob said. “I’m not trying to present an objective picture of Danville. Rather these are impressions which come out of me trying to make what I think are good pictures of a subject that interests me and that I feel connected to.”

Rob Friedman
Randolph Street, a neighborhood of sidewalks and trees

Danville today is a community with many hard working citizens, a place where most people look out for each other. In the busier parts of town, the streets are immaculately clean and well kept; shrubbery and flowering plants adorn major intersections. While the traditional downtown has more abandoned storefronts than business-occupants, on a highway along the river are WalMart, Home Depot, Target, Sam’s Club and a host of other national chain stores, as well as at least one of every known fast food and casual dining eatery: this is the shopping center for the region. (Don’t try to walk or lose weight in this area.)

Local pride seems to be intact, as reflected in an activist city government and an enlightened regional foundation.  Nevertheless, problems with health services, poverty, and criminal activity are also part of the picture. And, critically, the population has slowly but steadily declined as opportunity has diminished.

Rob Friedman
Union Street storefront facades, downtown Danville

A pattern of outmigration evolved over a long period of time. Rob and I graduated from George Washington High School in 1967 and from colleges in larger cities in 1971. There was never really a thought of returning to Danville as a permanent residence. Without family businesses to return to, or career goals of hanging out a doctor’s or lawyer’s shingle — and with minimal need for college graduates in the textile and tobacco businesses — opportunity was elsewhere. We were eager to experience bigger and, presumably at the time, better places.  With various stops along the way, over a decade or so, Rob’s permanent home became Miami and mine New York, areas of residence where we have now lived for longer than our Danville years. 

Despite that, we still follow the news at godanriver.com, keep up with a few friends who still live in town, and come back to Danville periodically. Traces of the sense of community that we knew as kids remain and the polite pace of the place is still familiar.  It was, in Rob’s words, “a good place to grow up”.

The legacy of a city on the fall line, one that became an important regional trading center and river and rail transportation point in the mid-1800’s, is visible in some of the photographs here. Friends who have seen these pictures have used words like “interesting,” “fantastic,” “sad,” and “moving.” Some have asked if Danville is really this bleak.

Rob Friedman
Stairs over the railroad tracks lead into the Schoolfield grounds


No, it is not. In fact, being in Danville is a mixed experience. The challenges and
damage done are evident, but the enormous potential can be felt as
well. Driving and walking around town, seeing the sports fields,
Riverwalk, the neighborhoods of well kept and startlingly inexpensive
homes, and the still solid infrastructure, I find myself thinking,
“Man, this town just needs a break.”  I think the stark nature of these images reflects Rob’s approach to his work and his art, rather than commentary on the town.

Rob described his method of working in a message to me:

“I prefer to photograph in early morning or late afternoon light,” he wrote. “I drive to a spot in Danville – downtown, tobacco warehouse area, familiar neighborhood, etc. and  then I walk, wander around and photograph whatever interests me at the moment. Much later, at home in Miami, after processing film and making contact sheets, I’ll select negatives to make rough prints from. When I have chosen a set of final prints I wonder how they add up.  What might they say about Danville or my experience of Danville?”

Rob Friedman
The Mayor, the courthouse steps, the newspaper building, and the looming Masonic Temple


So take in these photographs by Rob Friedman.  Look at some buildings and streets that were there when Jefferson Davis and his cabinet took the train from Richmond to Danville, inadvertently turning Major Sutherlin’s home into the “Last Capital of the Confederacy.”  Glance over Mayor Harry Wooding’s shoulders as he still keeps watch from the courthouse steps, no doubt not content with his 46-year tenure in that office (1892-1938). See downtown storefronts from Danville’s prosperous turn of the century (that’s 1900), and imagine living in the neat houses with big yards.  Better yet, just look.

 

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