When Missouri State photography professor Jimmie Allen was a boy, he distinctly remembers spending summers with his grandmother in Ava, Missouri. Having been born and raised in Springfield, Allen was unaccustomed to the change in atmosphere a small town like Ava had about it. Little did he know, this would inspire him to do a project devoted to the divide within the nation of urban versus rural living.
“This gentleman really just epitomizes a man from a rural community to me. He’s a type of figure that reminds me of someone like my grandfather. As I’m standing there listening to this man, I’m making this connection to my own grandpa.” —Jimmie Allen
With no car, he and his grandma would walk everywhere.
“When you get out and start walking around you notice all these little things,” Allen remarked. He attributed these walks as preparation for becoming a photographer. It helped him appreciate the little things in life that he normally wouldn’t notice.
Allen began capturing the small towns of Missouri in 2012 as a hobby. He simply began exploring smaller communities around southwest Missouri. However, it wasn’t until spring of 2018 that Allen began working on the project in earnest during his sabbatical. He drafted a proposal for a project he would call “Point and Periphery: Photographs from Small Missouri Towns.”
The idea behind the project was this: capture the beauty within the overlooked communities that make up the state of Missouri. Juxtaposed with big cities like St. Louis, Kansas City, and even Springfield, Allen wanted to document the small towns of rural Missouri.
Allen set a goal to photograph at least one small town in each of the 114 counties in Missouri. What he constituted as a “small town” was a community with a population of at least 1,000 people. This would ensure that the areas he visited were large enough to have a downtown area or business district for him to photograph.
“If you put a town into Google Maps, it’s going to take you to the center of the business district. That’s why I titled it ‘Point and Periphery,’ because I would go to that point on the map,” Allen explained.
Another aspect that peaked Allen’s interest was the population trends. After looking at data from the 2020 census, he found that 78 out of the 114 counties declined in population. He called this a “population exodus.” A sharp decline in rural communities and a surge in urban areas.
“My sense is that people don’t really feel like there’s much of an opportunity for them in these rural communities,” he theorized.
A typical day would involve traveling to seven or eight different towns. Spending time in these communities reminded Allen of when he was a child. Returning to the slower paced rhythm of small towns, he started to see less suspicion from onlookers and more genuine curiosity and an eagerness to connect.
“I would roll into a town and there would be things that resonated with me, so I would spend more time in a particular place. I might roll into another town and only spend half an hour there,” Allen said. People would ask Allen what he was doing when they saw him taking photos. When he explained his project, townspeople were excited to share little histories and anecdotes about their lives. These interactions would lead him to take some of his favorite portraits.
“For me, this picture is really a self-portrait in a way. I’m drawn to things that for some reason or another I have some sort of connection to.” —Jimmie Allen
Allen remarked that one of the most profound takeaways he had from this experience was recognizing the difference between taking a photo and looking at a photo.
“You don’t always realize the connection in the moment. A big part of photography is looking at the pictures that you’ve made and what they start communicating to you,” he explained.
Allen ended up working on “Point and Periphery” beyond his semester-long sabbatical. In July 2019, he finally met his goal — he photographed 220 towns!
“Point and Periphery” had two solo exhibitions. The first was in August 2021, at Missouri Valley College. The second was held in November at Missouri Southern State University. More of his photos as well as his artist’s statement can be found on the Jimmie Allen Photography website.
Jimmie Allen has taught at Missouri State University since 2007. He currently holds the position of associate professor of Art and Design. As a social documentary photographer, he’s always been interested in capturing the people, places, and things that make up society.