I was born and raised in New Jersey and photographed the city of Paterson because it was a prototype for industrial cities and represented the mythology of America. It was an American Idyll; unsustainable.
Paterson, America’s Silk City, lies hugging the Passaic Falls. The Falls, which powered the silk looms through the 19th and early 20th centuries, still run vigorously, pumping life into the old heart of the city even though the looms are silent.
The roofs of the mills creak and crumble, slumping under the weight of snow and withering from age and disuse. Proud people once filled with hope but now dispossessed seek refuge in them.
“You can see the ghosts, sometimes they’re happy but sometimes they’re sad,” says Colleen on a winter’s morning. She sleeps in the cold, sheltered by jagged timber from the persistent snow sinking through the roof of the old textile mill. “What happened?” asks another resident of the mill.
Answering that question became a central theme of my project. Industry builds communities as it draws in local resources to fuel its growth and then inevitably discovers ways to increase profits by moving elsewhere or maybe becomes obsolete.
Once gone, the city that relied on its manufacturing base is left without means to maintain its infrastructure or offer opportunity to its people. Decay sets in. Paterson and many other communities in America are left to fend for themselves and often struggle against corrupt political elites.
Opportunity is born out of who we are or where we are when we enter this world. The notion that we can be anything we want as long as we work hard enough is no longer the rule but the exception to it in America.
An idyll is an idealised period of time that is typically unsustainable and in literature often ends in tragedy. I selected the title American Idyll for my work because the industrialisation of Paterson in the 19th and 20th century was meant to be the American dream come true. Perhaps it was for a time, but it didn’t last.
In Paterson, it gave way to a new era of post-industrialisation that has trapped the community with declining prospects. The American dream is increasingly out of reach for many. The industrial revolution is romanticised in Paterson and America as an epic story of progress but we often disregard the consequences that many communities have suffered in a post-industrial landscape.
My approach to the project was inspired by local poets William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg. I wandered the city streets, back alleys, riverbanks, and old mills – stumbling on to house fires, political rallies, and neighborhood celebrations.
I wanted to create an allegory about America, delivered through the city of Paterson and her people. The pictures are intended to be lyrical and metaphorical, arranged like a poem about a day in the life of the city. “A man himself is a city,” wrote William Carlos Williams and, like Williams, I treated Paterson as a person: living, breathing, loving but also dying.
Paterson is the second most densely populated city in America after New York, with 150,000 people packed into eight square miles. It’s home to fifty ethnic groups. There’s about twenty-five million people in America, living in small cities like Paterson.
Founded in 1792 by Alexander Hamilton as a corporation, Paterson was ruled by corrupt industrialists who paid no taxes and crippled the city’s development. The consequences of its corrupted origins ripple through it today. In black and white, American Idyll depicts a broken city that mirrors American society.
American Idyll by Todd R. Darling is a lyrical interrogation of the American Dream set in Paterson, New Jersey, US. It will be released in April 2021. Darling is an American documentary photographer based in Hong Kong for 16 years, where he began his career photographing the Umbrella Movement for Polaris Images in 2014. View his portfolio here.
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