These photos paint a dismal yet lyrical vision of the American Dream

A couple walks downtown. (Todd R. Darling)
A couple walks downtown. (Todd R. Darling)
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Todd R. Darling’s first book, “American Idyll,” is fire-in-the-belly stuff. It’s a lyrical, if somewhat dismal, portrait of life in Paterson, N.J. The black-and-white photos present us with a despairing view of the American Dream. And the book is gorgeously realized.

Darling’s work is far from the first to take a long, hard look at the idea that this country is the land of opportunity. Usually, the result of prying that concept open shows a rotten underpinning — like a browning, bruising piece of fruit that was once enticing.

While there isn’t anything particularly earth-shattering about Darling’s findings in documenting a city he grew up very near, the execution and crafting of the story and images are, at times, exquisite.

Even more interesting is that Darling left the United States for Hong Kong some two decades back. This may be interesting only to me since I grew up across the water from Hong Kong in the former Portuguese colony of Macao.

My vision of America has always been colored by my formative years growing up in Southeast Asia, and I think that Darling’s life in Hong Kong couldn’t help but influence his vision of our country, let alone Paterson.

I asked Darling what led to his move to Hong Kong and then his return to the area where he grew up to produce this book.

Darling moved to Hong Kong when he was 23 to work in the restaurant industry. He set down roots there after feeling that Hong Kong was one of the world’s greatest cities, where “anything seemed possible,” he said. Darling started building both a family and a business.

But Darling also had ambitions to be a photographer and decided to come back to the United States to attend the International Center of Photography. While there, he decided to document the place where he grew up to “explore the myths and realities about it.” At the time, his wife was about to give birth to their second child, and Darling wanted the baby to be born in the United States.

Distance sometimes helps you make sense of things. By viewing from a more objective distance, you may be able to glean a different understanding of something that once was familiar. This can be done by literally moving somewhere else and becoming more of a dispassionate observer, or by adopting the guise of a documentarian. Darling did both these things.

As I said, Darling’s portrait of Paterson is both lyrical and dismal. But I don’t think it’s hyperbolic. The United States has been in a heightened state of turmoil for some time now. Decades of eroding, or disappearing, industry along with a sort of seasick political climate (see Jan. 6, Roe v. Wade, rising hate crimes, the culture wars) have peeled back any patina that spoke to yesteryear’s white-picket-fence, car-in-every-garage idea of the American Dream.

Darling isn’t the first and won’t be the last to plumb the depths of the United States’ true identity. I’d say that’s a good thing. Wasn’t it Socrates who said that “the unexamined life is not worth living”?

You can see more of Darling’s work on his website, here. And you can buy the book here.