South of Buck Creek


In the fall of 1966, when I was eighteen years old, I began taking photographs in the town of Springfield, Ohio, a few miles down the road from the college where I had begun my second year of studies in the liberal arts. My uncle had given me an Agfa Ambi Silette camera, which I carried with me, along with a few rolls of Tri-X film. I continued to travel to and photograph Springfield for the next forty-five years.

On my first day in Springfield, I watched a strangely calm man grab another man’s ears as if they were jug handles and smash his head into a wall. A perfect semi-circle of blood fanned onto the stucco above them. I peered into the fly-specked windows of a defunct tannery whose entrance was surmounted by a bull’s head staring out at Main Street from vacant leathery eye sockets. Just down the street, I found a store that sold voodoo love charms in suede pouches (choose your own set of real chicken feet) and Copenhagen and Red Man snuff in tins stacked high on shelves like canned salmon. In a junk shop, I bought a tiny lapel button with a faded portrait encircled by the legend “Lord Byron, English Poet,” and a photo album recording a local family’s trip to the 1936 Berlin Olympics; a pencilled note on one of the photographs expressed their pleasure at being seated close to Adolf Hitler.

Such was my introduction to Springfield, Ohio, which I came to know as a true “cabinet of wonders,” drawing me into itself and awakening a need, or possibly a vocation, that I hadn’t known I possessed.

I made several trips to Springfield during the academic year. Once my studies finished and I returned home to Montreal, I began travelling down to Springfield at least once a year to photograph life south of the city’s racial and class frontier, bordered by a muddy waterway called Buck Creek. Springfield had once been a successful manufacturing city but, in the mid-twentieth century, it became a bellwether for industrial decline in North America and an exemplar of truly disastrous urban planning. When I started taking photographs in Springfield, I knew little of that history. It was enough for me to spend a week or so every year walking from one end of ruined and depopulated Main Street, through the city, to the other end and back again, my camera always in hand.

Over the years, my role in the territory south of Buck Creek changed from spectator to participant, and I became used to voices calling out “Hey, Canada!” or “Picture dude!” Thanks to my accent, my clothes, and even my gait, I didn’t fall into any local category. Black people who barely had a notion of Canada as a country (like many of the white residents) nonetheless knew it as a terminus for the Underground Railroad and as a place where medical treatment and bankruptcy did not go hand in hand. This fact often opened the door to trust. White people were sometimes a different story because they couldn’t categorize me. I learned to watch for beer bottles thrown from car windows by laughing white men or, worse, vehicles swerving to the shoulder of the road to sideswipe me. Often, men driving past screamed, “Faggot!”

In 2011, Springfield gained notoriety when the Gallup organization completed a three-year “survey of American misery” and proclaimed it the “unhappiest city in America.” That same year, I made my last trip to Buck Creek; I had produced over 10,000 images. My photographs were starting to repeat themselves and the world I had known was changing. An entire neighbourhood south of Buck Creek had been demolished, and many people, unhoused, some with a little cash in hand from buyouts, had dispersed. After I stopped photographing Springfield, my appetite for the opportunity to slip out of one life and into another clung like the urges of an addiction. Then it fell away entirely, leaving only the memories of an experience along with these photographs of a foreign land.

Terria (1966)

The first day I visited Main Street, I met a young girl wearing cat’s eye glasses, a pleated wool skirt and an impeccably ironed white blouse. She held the hand of a younger boy, her brother, who was impatient to get going. When I asked permission to take her picture, she seemed not to understand what I wanted, much less why. For a moment, in her confusion, she released the little boy’s hand and grasped her own wrist. I didn’t learn her name but her gesture never left my imagination. Forty-three years after this picture was taken, I received an email from a Springfield newspaper reporter. The subject line read, “I found your girl.” Amazingly, he had. Her name was Terria and she lived in California. When I eventually spoke with Terria she told me that she had been able to recognize herself because of the mole on her right forearm. Her family home had burned down, her brother had died unexpectedly and this image had become her only concrete link to the past.

South of Buck Creek (2001)

The last recorded lynching of a black man in Springfield happened downtown in 1904. A white crowd then set fire to black neighbourhoods. The racial divide was still there eighty-seven years later, in 2001, when this image was taken, and sometimes it was expressed hatefully. As in the old days, people usually kept to their own turf. North of Buck Creek was white and middle class; south was Appalachian white, black and Latino. That class and racial divide could be so taken for granted that it would disappear from consciousness in daily life. Then a graffito praising the Ku Klux Klan would appear below a painted American flag, or a drawing expressing a grotesque longing for lynching would turn up on a garage wall and restore the divide to full consciousness. Even chalk drawings left by children on the side of a church revealed the legacy of a stubbornly malign racial consciousness.

Joy (1999)

This little girl’s mother was slow-moving, quick to smile and trusting. When I asked to take pictures of her daughter, she just nodded agreeably and sat on a nearby porch to watch us. The little girl was a firecracker, filled with energy, wit and good humour, and I knew she would give me a lively image. This bothered me almost as much as it pleased me. Poor black people have too often been represented as somehow ennobled by their poverty and repression, somehow better able to reach deep and pull up reserves of joy and warmth found beneath the adversity in their lives. But poverty doesn’t work that way. The simple joys of the poor, unburdened by possessions and excessive ambition, are a guilty invention by the rest of us. I tried to constrain the representation of this girl’s joy by imprisoning her in straight lines of black and white and to present her as though she were overseen by the tall windows at her back.

Marriage (1998)

I caught sight of this woman and her twins sunbathing in their front yard and asked to take their picture. The woman was hesitant—and why not? I was a complete stranger with a camera. However, after a moment’s reflection, she collected the girls and, with no direction from me, guided them into the pool. “Now, you have to be fast,” she said, “because my husband comes home at three.” I remember glancing at my watch and seeing that it was about four minutes before three. “And if he catches you here doing this,” she went on, “he’ll kill you.” There was no hint of irony in her voice. She bit her lip and smiled at the same time and I grabbed a few shots. “Now, I’m not tellin’ you my name,” she said, as though her name would reveal more than a picture of her in her bikini. In the later years of this project, women wouldn’t so easily agree to have their pictures taken. They were afraid, as one told me, that their faces would appear atop a nude body on the Internet.

Manhood (1994)

For years, I visited two neighbouring houses whose messy yards appeared to generate children in the way rags and wheat were once thought to generate mice. Every time the kids spotted me, someone would yell out, “The picture guy is here!” There was always half a dozen or more of them playing in the yard or the street, or being teased by the young, single men who also lived there. The kids’ parents, somewhat to my distress, seemed not to know “parent” as a verb, and never questioned my presence. This young man was showing off his little friend to me and, inexplicably, lifted up his shirt. Another young man who was watching us saw my confusion. “You know why he do that?” he asked, lifting the hem of his own shirt. I admitted that I didn’t. “Why, he a man!” the friend said. I still don’t know if it was the well-muscled torso or the “Pooh and Friends” stitched into the broad waistband of his underwear that proclaimed his masculinity.

Working Women (2006)

A woman who had turbanned her wet hair with a white towel approached me and asked, “What’re you doing here?” When I told her I was from Montreal and that I was taking pictures and meeting people, she said she had just returned from Alabama, where she had been in jail. She was studying to be a truck driver to help pay for her daughter’s college education when her instructor attempted to sexually assault her in the cab of a truck. She told me she took out her knife and “cut him up.” The trial that followed found she had no proof of the attack and put her in jail for aggravated assault; now, she was happy to be free. At the end of her story, she caught sight of an older woman wearing a leopard print dress walking toward us on the sidewalk. “Here’s someone for you to meet,” she said. “She’s the oldest streetwalker in Springfield!” With that, she embraced the woman, who wore a hospital bracelet on her wrist and a “Wittenberg University” lanyard around her neck.

Muscle at City Council (1999)

The street was empty save for a boy in army fatigues doing push-ups on the sidewalk under a red and white beach umbrella. His face was beaded with sweat. I squatted in front of him to ask if I could take a few pictures and he grunted his assent. I sat on the sidewalk and focused on his face, adjusting the angle so his body would appear foreshortened. I then stood up and thanked him, but my thanks was interrupted by an urgent whirring sound. Within moments, I had been corralled by three large, protective-looking black women on electric golf carts. They explained that the boys were residents of a home for troubled kids and that pictures couldn’t be taken without the permission of a parent or a guardian. A few minutes later, a tall, self-possessed man who identified himself as the CEO of the home, Vision for Youth, came to speak with me. He said he liked my ideas about portraying the poor and underprivileged. “How can we help?” he asked. “Do you need some protection? Some muscle at city council?”

The "C" Language (1999)

I walked up the street past the Vision for Youth residence with a couple of boys, a male counsellor and a convoy of white golf carts. Wrecked military vehicles incongruously parked in a primly mowed side yard affirmed the home’s “boot camp” approach to rehabilitation. The boys saluted their counsellors and addressed them smartly as “Sir!” We stopped at a vegetable garden the boys had cleared, planted and maintained. One of the boys told me that his father had raised him at US military bases around the world. He had taught himself to write computer programs in the C language, and was articulate and cosmopolitan, completely unlike the other kids. “When we moved back to Springfield,” he told me, “everything was race. You were black or white and that was all you were.” When I told him about the students I saw in Montreal socializing in groups indifferent to race, he teared up and wiped his eyes. For a crazy moment, I fantasized about adopting him.

Religion (1985)

I watched this man park his immaculately clean Volvo on a stretch of asphalt that meandered pointlessly across an empty plot of land. He spread the legs of a display stand, balanced two books on it, and topped it off with an American flag. When I approached, he introduced himself as a reverend from a nearby Christian church. It wasn’t clear to me why he was selling a book about the Qur’an, but one of his parishioners did stop at the display to buy a copy. It was also never clear to me why so many of the desperately poor—people covered in bedbug bites, or people who had just declared bankruptcy to escape the burden of life-saving medical bills—cherished, displayed and clothed themselves in American flags and symbols. It took me years to recognize that it was not the nation that succoured them, nor one god over another, but the comforting matrix of belief itself.

Friends (1997)

This group of people waited across the street from the place that paid for blood plasma. They were killing time, they told me, “waiting for our blood to clear.” A schizophrenic man paced up and down the street buttoning and unbuttoning his shirt while the others talked quietly. A man wearing a striped shirt asked for a photograph with his girlfriend. His expressionless eyes unsettled me. My notebook from that day in 1997 identifies him only as “scary guy.” I carried a print with me for years in the hope of delivering it to him. About ten years after this was taken, I met his father, Mr. Poe. He was in a wheelchair because he’d lost his legs when he fell asleep, drunk, stretched over a train track. He told me that his son was in prison for killing a man in a fight over a bottle of beer. When I gave him this photograph, he gazed at it and shouted proudly, “That’s my son. That’s my son!”

Scrap (2000)

Donald and Louen dreamed of owning their own home. They worked long hours for that dream by filling the bed of their Chevrolet pickup with scrap metal all day long and selling it to a dealer. When I ran into them, they were trying to separate hundreds of metal clothes hangers they had found on the curb on trash collection day. It was impossible to move the heavy tangle of hangers. Donald told me that he didn’t have a driver’s license, but he knew how to fix his truck and how to drive. When I gave him my notebook and asked him to write contact information so I could send a photograph, he hesitated, and then laboriously drew each letter of his name. Louen was crackling with impatience. Her pager had just sounded, so she quickly wrote their address in my notebook, telling Donald that they had “a pile of lamps to get before they’re gone!”

The 440 Line (2000)

I met Howard Rude when he was demolishing a small building with no tools other than a crowbar, a hammer, and a shovel. He said his son had left him there in the morning to do the job. He repeated himself frequently, lost his thoughts and sometimes drifted away for a few moments until he found what sounded like an often-told story. He told me about a Springfield city official in the 1920s who had murdered a lover but who had enough political pull to escape prosecution. He remembered Springfield as a wealthy, unruly town where one’s life could change in an instant. One of his own life-changing experiences had occurred when he worked as an electrician: “I was up in the rafters at a plant running a 440 line,” he said. “There was this big black woman working on an armature, wearing a leather apron, just below me. When I fell, she heard me yell and stretched out her apron to catch me. A big, fat woman. I landed in her lap. I woulda been dead. I was a racist before that, but never again.”

Ugly World (2006)

Back in Montreal, the phone rang and I picked it up to hear an oddly intimate, vaguely threatening voice with an American accent. After a moment, I realized it must be someone from Springfield. The caller was the front man for the band Ugly World and he went by the name of “B-Steelz.” He wanted me to photograph the band for a CD jacket. Ugly World played rap, blues, country and Sinatra. Their name was an agglomeration, standing for “Under God Lives You/With Out Redemption Lies Death.” When I first met B-Steelz and his violet-eyed sister, eternal damnation wasn’t up for discussion. Instead, we drank lemonade with the band and appreciated Charlie Pride. But when it came time to make a photograph, B-Steelz and his sister, unlike the white people I photographed, instantly adopted sullen, angry expressions for the camera. When I asked why—a question only a foreigner could get away with—he said, “That’s just the way you gotta look in this world, man.”

Terence Byrnes is a writer and photographer. He was born in Toronto in 1948. As a young student, Byrnes earned a trade certificate in electronics, but chose a different career path. He turned down a position at the Kennedy Space Center, as well as an offer from Cornell University to study industrial psychology. Instead, he took up studies at a liberal arts college in southern Ohio, near the city of Springfield.

Byrnes began photographing Springfield in 1966. Over the next forty-five years, he produced tens of thousands of images of the city, selections from which have been shown at art galleries in the United States and, in 2009, in a solo show at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. He has also edited magazines, published fiction and non-fiction, ghost written autobiographies, and, as he says, “written hack work that included a stint as Maria the Fortune Telling Gypsy for a large tabloid.”

Closer to Home: The Author and the Author Portrait (Véhicule Press, 2008). A selection of his author portraits called “The Imagined Portrait” was awarded an Honourable Mention in the 2009 National Magazine Awards. In his current photographic project, Sovereign, he examines the nature of representation in portraiture by having his photographic subjects make and wear crowns that express their area of expertise. More Springfield photographs, and samples of his current work, may be seen at

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Terence Byrnes’ intimate portraits have appeared in solo shows and publications around the world. Byrnes is a writer and photographer, and he is chair of the English Department at Concordia University, Montréal.

More of his photography can be found at



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