Snowbirds

Stephen Chalmers / Snowbirds
Sushi Performance and Visual Art
January 4 – 30, 2010

Curatorial Statement: On Snowbirds

When photographer Dorothea Lange and author John Steinbeck created their works on transient populations during the Great Depression, the Recreation Vehicle (RV) industry was already in its infancy. After World War II, American industrial might was redirected from tending to the war effort to meeting pent-up consumer demand. Increased employment to meet these demands provided a dramatic boost in the American standard of living. One result was the expansion of a mobile lifestyle in the American middle class. Trailers and self-contained RVs became the means and the mode of transportation to live elsewhere and to experience the country without sacrificing the comforts of home.

RV parks sprouted throughout the Sunbelt and became “winter homes” for the retired. Today, during the fall and winter, the populations of many small towns in the Southwest increase significantly as retired individuals escape the inhospitable cold and rain in search of a warm, dry climate. Some communities experience a several hundred percent increase in their population during this period.[1] Nationwide, 9 to 13 percent of individuals over the age of 60 spend at least four months away from their self-described “permanent home,”[2] for a total of 6 million individuals nationwide.[3]

Although designed as a temporary travel home, the RV has also become primary residence for many people of limited means. By the early 1950s the RV and travel trailer industry began producing cosmetic shells to hide the mobile features of the trailer – the wheels, axles and tow-hitches. Instead of emphasizing mobility, these shells were designed to evoke a set of conventional values common to postwar US domestic architecture. Due to the discrepancy in construction, materials and craftsmanship between mobile homes and permanent houses, mobile homes quickly acquired the stigma of being low class. Even today, mobile home parks, or “trailer parks” evoke stereotypical images of uneducated “trailer trash.”

However, RV culture is far from a static socio-economic dichotomy. In fact, the RV is currently being repurposed by both contemporary architects and D-I-Y cultures seeking to transgress conventional notions of home in favor of self-sufficient or“off the grid” living.

This world within a vehicle is documented in Snowbirds, an exhibition of photographs by Stephen Chalmers. Stephen Chalmers spent a winter living in an RV in the desert Southwest, photographing people “at home” in and around their RVs, often against the iconic backdrop of the desert. Snowbirds represents a small sampling from Chalmers’ much larger portfolio of images. His photos reveal“home” to be a flexible concept, an idea that is co-produced by the relationship between self, objects and place. Taken as a whole, the imagery offers glimpses of how identity is constructed in these mobile, domestic spaces while it points to ideologies of transience that have developed over the last century.

-Brian Goeltzenleuchter, Curator

 

Biography

Stephen Chalmers has been an emergency medical technician, taught gang-affected children photography, and worked as a counselor to severely emotionally disturbed children. His photography practice deals with the psychology of loss and raises questions about the nature of representation. Chalmers has taught workshops in alternative photographic processes and digital imaging, and has been a visiting artist at numerous colleges and universities. He has been contributing photographer to several books, and has exhibited throughout the US and as well as in Australia, Ireland, British Columbia, England, South Africa, and China. Stephen Chalmers earned his MFA in Cinema and Photography from Southern Illinois University. His work can be found in several collections including the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Light Work, Polaroid, and the Getty Research Institute. Selections from his projects and more biographical information can be seen at www.askew-view.com.

1.   For instance, the population of the town Quartzite Arizona increases from 2,500 during the summer months to as many as 1,000,000 residents in the winter months. 

2.   See:

a.   Hogan, Timothy D. and Donald N. Steinnes. 1996. “Arizona Sunbirds and Minnesota Snowbirds: Two Species of the Elderly Seasonal Migrant Genus.” Journal of Economic and Social Measurement 22: 129-139.

b.   Krout, John A. 1983. “Seasonal Migration of the Elderly,” The Gerontologist 23: 295-299.

3.   From The Older Population in the United States: March 2002 from www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/p20-546.pdf.

4.   The term snowbirds is defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as “a generic label for a person who lives in one place for an extended portion of the year and another for the remainder. For all intents and purposes a snowbird is a person who resides at a seasonal residence for at least some portion of the year.”