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A WRINKLE IN TIMEPHOTO--HISTORIAN GETS A LOT OF YARDAGE OUT OF OLD FOLKS AT HOME

The man was absorbed in vacuuming the gravel that graced the front yard of his house in Sun City when photographer Allen Dutton cruised past. Dutton was there to document life in the retirement community, and this improbable spectacle was more than he could resist.

"How come it doesn't pick up all your gravel?" Dutton remembers asking the fellow in some puzzlement.

"It's epoxied down," the man told him.
Somehow that epoxied front yard epitomized everything Sun City seemed to be about, and Dutton still treasures the photograph of the man, vacuum held like a weapon, ready to do battle with dusty gravel.

Dutton says he had no trouble getting the residents of Sun City to pose for him when he began, almost ten years ago, to photograph the town that summarizes for much of America what retirement living is all about.

"I'm 68," Dutton says, "so I'm the same age as a lot of these people."
His age, his affable manner and his greeting, "How would you like to be part of a historical document?" disarmed the Sun City residents. Only two people, he remembers, refused to cooperate. The rest--hundreds of them--were only too happy to pose in front of yards and driveways neat to the point of compulsion.

The photographer's Sun City work grew out of his project to photograph every community in Arizona. Like his pictures of Snowflake and Show Low, Dutton's shots of Sun City were intended to be straight documentary, but, he says, when he looks at the hundreds of photographs he took between 1981 and 1985, he realizes they make a comment on a unique way of life.

The centerpiece of this life, Dutton found, is the front yard. In Sun City, it has assumed the proportions of a cult. After years of being tyrannized by lawns in their hometowns, Sun City's retired residents have declared their independence--not only with the graveled front yard, but with the Astroturfed one as well.

Dutton's photographs place the yard squarely in the foreground. They seem to overwhelm the people, who are set far back in the space, and to become MD120 Col 1, Depth P54.04 I9.06 advertisements for them. Ornaments abound--Masonic emblems, initials and other conversation-starting devices provide clues to the lives of the owners.

The care lavished on the front yard extends to other things as well. The saguaro cactus so beloved by those fleeing the travails of winter have been pampered and overwatered to the point of obesity, even tumorousness.

And then there is the driveway. Dutton came across one woman who was polishing hers. Many Sun City driveways have a finishing coat that can be color-keyed to the house, or incorporate a design--Dutton saw one in paisley--or be so richly finished they reflect the owner's house.

"Someone had dripped oil on it," Dutton says, explaining the activity of the polishing woman. "She was furious."

Dutton was fascinated by the evolution of the modest early homes--they actually had grass!--into the grander houses of the newer sections. He was fascinated by the olive trees pruned into exotic shapes. He was fascinated by the man who rode his golf cart while his dog ran alongside. And he remembers with great fondness the woman who kept forgetting she was posing for a photograph, and wandering back into her house.

Although he certainly photographed the odd and the unusual--like the black house, known to all Sun City residents because of its decidedly antisocial junked cars--the photographer consciously tried to edit those out in the final selection process. The more ordinary, he thought, the more typical, the more information about what life was like in Sun City in the 1980s.

"I felt it was so unique a culture and it wasn't being documented, so I have it preserved," he says. He accumulated between 400 and 500 black-and-white photographs, shooting at any time of day to deliberately avoid the landscape photographer's trademarked raking light, embracing an almost defiant ordinariness.

For almost twenty years, Dutton was the head of the photography department at Phoenix College. His Sun City photographs fall at the documentary end of an enormous and almost unbelievably varied body of work produced since he turned his hand to photography thirty years ago. He has done the beautiful landscape. He has done "rephotographing"--in "Arizona Then and Now," Dutton re-shot scenes shown in nineteenth-century photographs to record the hand of time and man. And he has assembled two books of surrealistic photographs by doctoring images of naked women--many grossly overweight--in the desert.

Although he will say several times that he was not making fun of the Sun City residents in the photographs--indeed, Dutton sent prints to each of his subjects--viewers seem to find them hilarious. In the deadpan manner they record the tract houses, and in the way they turn to cooperative residents into living lawn ornaments, the pictures are deceptive but devastating commentary on a way of life residents love and outsiders love to ridicule.

The kind of dispassionate, almost dumb manner in which Dutton photographed the residents of Sun City belongs to the tradition known as "new topographics." The name comes from the title of an exhibition at the George Eastman House in 1975. and includes landscape photography so deliberately boring the pictures look like real estate agents took them.

"It's a nonjudgmental, cool, objective view of things," says ASU photo historian Bill Jay. "It's a reaction to photojournalists who have causes to espouse."

As an outgrowth of his deadpan record of Sun City, Dutton has embarded on a project so unimaginative his colleagues wonder how he has th patience for it. He is photographing all the significant street corners in Phoenix. He has already completed McDowell, Seventh Street, Camelback, and Scottsdale Road. It is documentary at its most elemental, and Dutton is donating the prints and negatives from the projedt to the Arizona Historical Foundation at ASU's Hayden Library.

"It's the sterilist, most mundane work," says John Mercer, head of the photography department at Phoenix College, "but it gains more value with time. In a hundred years, some photographer will go around i

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Anna Dooling