To visit Pine Bluff, Ark., for the first time is to know it suffers from a broken heart. Main Street, jilted by fickle industries with more attractive suitors, is a hologram of itself — rows of two and three-story buildings, empty, faded, barely alive.
William Widmer was stunned to see it. Not that he hadn’t witnessed his share of dying downtowns. A freelance photojournalist based in New Orleans, he travels all over the South and beyond on assignments. Business districts done in by Walmarts are old news, part of the landscape, like lost barns on the prairie. But there was something about this town (Pop. 47,000) with a schoolyard nickname — “Stank City,” for the rotten egg fumes the paper mills belch out — that grabbed Mr. Widmer’s attention. “It was a clear, crisp Southern winter day,” he said, “and downtown was still and vacant.”
The echo-chamber sidewalks, boarded buildings and shotgun shacks intrigued Mr. Widmer as a journalist. The dappled sky inspired him as an artist. “That first walk, the light was perfect down Main Street.”
Mr. Widmer was just passing through Pine Bluff on the way home from Kansas City, Mo., with seven hours left to drive. But he ended up sticking around for hours, shooting sad streets and plotting his return. He had a crush on the place. Plus, he wanted to know what had sapped its soul. He thought it might make a good story. But what happened when he returned changed his whole notion about photographing Pine Bluff. It also profoundly influenced his approach to documentary photography.