David Simonton has lived in North Carolina since moving to the state from New Jersey in 1989. He began his career as a self-taught photographer and has since taught photography at the Crafts Center at North Carolina State University and at Peace College (now William Peace University), both in Raleigh. After moving to the state, Simonton began focusing on small towns as the subject of his photography. He is the recipient of numerous grants and commissions, including two Visual Artist Fellowships from the North Carolina Arts Council (2000, 2008). His black-and-white prints are included in the collections of the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh; the George Eastman Museum, Rochester, New York; and The Do Good Fund, Columbus, Georgia.
While Simonton acknowledges the documentary aspects of his work, he also asserts the importance of formal elements in shaping his compositions. His black-and-white photographs are quiet meditations on the qualities of space, shape, and light in vignettes of small North Carolina towns. Simonton shoots with a medium-format camera, using a tripod and slow-speed film to allow for long exposures. This gives his work a broad range of tones, as in Rocky Mount, Edgecombe County, North Carolina (1997), a nighttime photograph of an empty street. Simonton’s image captures the intricate textures of the two anonymous storefronts, which are in need of fresh paint and have wire mesh over their windows. A phone booth sits at the center of the composition, and we can almost hear the phosphorescent light buzzing inside. Its glowing interior contrasts with the energy of the cold, quiet stone of the sidewalk and the building’s facade. With great subtlety, Simonton invites associations with Edward Hopper’s painted night scenes, most notably of small-town storefronts.
North Carolina is one of the fastest-growing states in the country. Such transition, in spite of its economic benefits, inevitably comes with a loss of local distinctness. Simonton documents these changes not to romanticize what once was, but simply to remember. Other nighttime images, such as Williamston, Martin County, North Carolina (1998), reveal additional abandoned storefronts from an earlier era. Simonton also documents the passing of the state’s industrial sites, such as North Carolina Finishing Company, Rowan County, North Carolina (2004). For much of the twentieth-century, this textile mill employed hundreds of people who lived nearby in a small company village. Though the mill closed in 2000, this image gives a sense of the importance of this major employer for the town in times past.
Not having people in his pictures affords Simonton greater formal control over the geometric layout and exposure of his works. Construction, Downtown Raleigh, Wake County, North Carolina (1999), for example, transforms an otherwise indistinct construction site, devoid of activity late at night, into a rich tapestry of patterns. The gridded concrete, structural rods, and doors and windows of the construction provide a modernist backdrop for the deep tire tracks that curve across the dirt below. Simonton’s careful, thoughtful images explore the subtleties of what might otherwise be relatively obscure places. His formalist skills raise these lonely sites out of the sphere of the mundane to create Zen-like visual kōans that offer us the opportunity to reflect on the changing urban landscapes of the South.