Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Rob Walter's photographs of Omaha may seem dreary. But he is devoted to his "social, supportive" city.
Rob Walters first moved to Omaha with his parents in the summer of 1985. Though he moved away after high school, he stayed close to his childhood friends and returned for good in 2004.
A cinematographer and photographer, Walters sees Omaha as "a forgiving place" that provides a cheap landing to anyone who's pursuing creative, but rarely lucrative, endeavors. Walters has been photographing Omaha since his return, often finding mundane scenes along its streets, devoid of crowds or memorable architecture. Despite this, Watlers's love for the city is obvious. He says that he has "never lived in a more social and supportive place" (though you wouldn't know it based on his pictures).
We caught up with Walters via email to ask him what he looks for when photographing his hometown, and to figure out the "internal conversation" he has when he looks at Omaha's pedestrians and its car-centric streets:
You have a series of photos that show people waiting for the bus and it seems to work as a specific window into life in Omaha. What were you saying with those photographs?
Omaha is very car-centric and because of this there aren't a lot of people out and about in the street. Many of my images result in being sparsely populated. I am always looking to put some human element in my images.
The bus stops tend to be the few public places out in the street where you can find people. Even saying that, often those bus stops have only one or two people. I don't want to get too far into my own take on what that means, but I will say I have only rode the bus a couple of times during 15 years of living in Omaha. As a city it just doesn't have that same mix of people out in the street like you find in Chicago or New York.
Many of your Omaha photos give the city the look of a painfully mundane place, built in a way that makes it appear anti-social. What aspects of daily life in Omaha, or its infrastructure, make for your best photographs?
It's kind of funny to think of the city as "painfully mundane" but I think it is a fair look at the landscape. As I was saying before, there isn't a lot of foot traffic out on the street so I think it's easy to see Omaha as kind of a lifeless city. However, I would argue that is only the surface. For me, personally, I have never lived in a more social and supportive place. I often found bigger cites, despite the amount of people and human interaction, to be more lonely and anti-social.
As far as the photographs, I tend to gravitate towards the unpopulated. Part of the internal conversation I am always having is how we define the space we live in. Presenting images parred down to the environment itself, draws attention to the space and how it functions. Omaha seems to have been developed from a narrow perspective of single passenger cars, and when you apply that vantage point, at least for me, that is painfully mundane, and I am sure part of my intention is to criticize this a bit, but it's also a great city to crank up the radio and go for a drive.
How has Omaha evolved in your time there?
I have lived on and off in Omaha since 1985. Back then the shopping mall was king. Now most of them are ghost towns, yet much of the new development is just a modernization of places to shop. You would think the only thing we had to do is shop and eat lunch at chain restaurants, but underneath that there is a great influx of really creative things going on.
At least in my little bubble of friends and colleagues there is an aversion to the big box landscape. Even though it seems we are losing to all the national chains, there also seems to be a strong influx of more localized commerce.
Despite all that, it remains a great place to photograph. There is much of the old Omaha left in the landscape and I guess part of what I am doing is trying to capture that before it's gone. This is way too big of a comparison, but I often think of Eugène Atget and his photographs of Paris before the expansion of the boulevards.
This interview has been edited and condensed. All images courtesy Rob Walters
Top image, "72nd and Cass, Omaha, NE"