Ghost Town Love Story 

Ed Kinney's gloomy photographs enshrine memories of a world he never knew.

In the Bay Area these days, where overcrowding and skyrocketing real estate prices are the norm, a dying town sounds like something out of a fairy tale. But these things do happen in faraway places. Ed Kinney's photographs of Minas Basin and the Bay of Fundy take a close-up look at a storybook kind of place, where the tides rise and fall fifty feet in a single day, communities are tiny and close-knit, and most of the population is well into its golden years. Lumber, fishing, and farming used to be big business in this part of Nova Scotia, but the inhabitants began leaving after World War II. These days, Kinney and his wife Moreen regularly return to the area from their El Cerrito home to visit her remaining relatives. Kinney describes the resulting photos as an effort to visualize his wife's ultra-small-town childhood -- to depict her "unrequited memories."

In ghost-town lingo, the term for places like these is "semi-ghost," meaning partly inhabited and partly abandoned. Some of Kinney's images portray still-active parts of the community, like Dave's Barber Shop and Sports Museum in Parrsboro, but he concentrates primarily on deserted houses, cemeteries, boats, lighthouses -- lingering, poetic evidence of human desertion. Captions accompany each image, sometimes explaining how the things we're seeing no longer exist. You get a sense of time and human effort slipping through your fingers even as you're reading the words on the wall.

A funereal atmosphere pervades most of Kinney's images, even those he took outdoors. The skies are always dark and ominous, like it's just about to rain, and the dreary uniformity of the light creates a similar effect whether he is photographing cemetery tombstones or abandoned houses. Rising up mysteriously out of the grassy ground, they are simultaneously creepy and welcoming. For instance, the lingering presence of the people who once lived in Morton Murphy's house seems incredibly vivid, and yet we can project ourselves into the photograph and feel exquisitely alone, free to mentally trespass through the hallways and sift through the forgotten remnants of their lives. Another image shows two kids' bicycles laying forgotten in the middle of a cemetery. The scene is so full of prophetic symbolism that it seems staged, but Kinney says that he really did find the bikes just laying there among the tombstones.

Even Kinney's indoor pictures of Dave's Barber Shop and Sports Museum, which showcase Dave's impressive memorabilia collection and mostly elderly male clientele, seem dark and gloomy, as if a heavy layer of literal and metaphorical dust was covering everything in the room. Business may be going on as usual right now, but Dave and friends will clearly soon be another musty page in the local history books.

Kinney's status as a kind of outsider-insider in these communities goes a long way towards explaining his unique documentary approach. His images convey a keen sense of mourning over the towns' slow demise, but the pathos is balanced by a more general type of ghost-town romance and the matter-of-fact documentary tone of the captions. The effect is to make it clear that these are someone else's unrequited memories; Kinney never knew these towns at a time when they weren't slowly dying.


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