Review of "Forty-Six: My Tulsa in Pictures" by Ashley Martin

Forty-Six: My Tulsa in Pictures, by Ashley Martin 

When I first came to Tulsa in 1989 as a teenager, I found a town slowly emerging into a more cosmopolitan identity.  However, these attempts were isolated to very specific regions of the city; elsewhere, it remained something of a “cow town,” which rested on its laurels as a famous stop on Route 66.  Large tracts of land with cattle sat comfortably next to a strip mall, while the downtown itself had been largely abandoned, its art deco architecture left to decay amidst a sea of shopping carts and faded billboards.  That Tulsa has largely disappeared, replaced by new roads, parking lots, coffee houses, and a revitalized downtown.  Tulsa is now a progressive, thriving mid-sized city, and I’m sometimes at a loss to find the Tulsa I grew up in.  This might be the inspiration behind Ashley Martin’s wonderful book of pictures, Forty Six: My Tulsa in Pictures, which almost totally ignores what Tulsa has become in the search for what it was—20 years ago, 40 years ago, and even further beyond.  Like any city, the past still clings on in the margins, visible in an alleyway or neglected back road.  Ashley Martin explores the less glamorous—okay, the downright grungy—aspects of Tulsa to piece together this lost Tulsa that many of us grew up in.  However, this isn’t an exercise in willful nostalgia or hipster vintage gusto; instead, it’s simply a poetic look at how the past slowly dies in plain sight.  This Tulsa is still there—people still live here—but how few of us look at it, racing by in our cars to a more exclusive destination.  In a few years, I imagine, even these last vestiges will be gone, so Martin’s book will be a testament to what was; better left forgotten by some, but well worth remembering by others.  For all of it, good and bad, made Tulsa was it is, particularly the mythic images of open land and cattle that form the definitive architecture of the book. 

Fittingly, the book opens with a gorgeous black and white image of a tree embracing the sky, the idyllic Tulsa that has always been (we’re in Green Country, after all).  This is followed by another ‘past’ Tulsa, a seemingly abandoned warehouse adorned with a stylish ‘Tulsa’ sign on its front.  Clearly, Tulsa has forgotten this once integral member of its economy, and the reflection in its large windows reveals empty streets and shadows of signs that look ominously like crosses.  A sunrise is also caught in the window, but one fears it might be the last for this building (we could probably hear the rumble of bulldozers that morning).  Martin’s tour continues through quaint shop windows, school entrances, churches, beauty salons, and the iconic “Wonder Bread” sign that all Tulsans of a certain generation recognize.  Yet the tour is ultimately not celebratory, as a metaphorical graveyard of stripped down gas pumps informs us: in the race to progress, much of the old Tulsa has simply been left to die.  The “Rebel Run” restaurant, with boarded up and broken windows, broods in silence, never again to serve up its tasty fried delicacies.  A similar fate has met “Barber & Beauty Supply,” a decaying storefront on an abandoned street, which Martin captures in the full light of a Tulsa blue sky.  Cleverly, the windows again capture the other side of the street, revealing only a gas station, the one business still in business (so people can continue their hasty retreat out of the neighborhood, perhaps).  In some ways, the most poetic image of this ‘abandoned Tulsa’ series is a crushed pack of Marlboros photographed on the street.  It has clearly been run over several times, and its flat, empty exterior is scarcely more colorful than the crusty, gray pavement itself.  Yet from the grime emerges an American icon: the brand is instantly recognizable and even in our “no smoking” world they conjure up a sense of pride and identity.  All these faded storefronts do the same: though they are no longer ‘good for our health,’ we secretly wish to look through the windows, imagining them at their prime, when we could sit down, grab a bite, and listen to the conversation of a dozen strangers. 

Martin also captures the older, Route 66 Tulsa in her images, as witnessed by a Jazz Age “Atlas Travel” sign downtown, and a rusted-beyond-recognition sign for used cars, which has the iconic Route 66 arrow.  The Mayo building, too, rises out of a black and white Tulsa night, as a beacon to its historic past.  Reaching even further into history are a few fleeting images of our Western past: a balloon emblazed with a cowboy rising into a pink sunset sky, a young girl participating in a cattle show, and the cow itself, a beautiful animal staring placidly at the camera.  This seems to be her final thought on Tulsa, as she ends with a two page spread of a Tulsa field, the grass shimmering in a sun-drenched summer day.  A few clouds drift lazily overhead, and nothing of the new or old Tulsa is visible, beyond the faintest impression of a house or two on the margins.  Tulsa may be on the march to a glorious, big-city rebirth, but it remains rooted in Oklahoma.  The land, the sky, and the smothering heat will always be here, no matter how many Walgreen’s we erect on every corner.  Martin’s book is a reminder that this Tulsa can be re-discovered, the one you grew up with as well as the one that preceded us all.  We should look more, not drive so fast, and simply take pictures (even if only mental ones) of the city we love.  Because even in its squalor and decay, beauty can be found—even if it takes a clever and perceptive photographer to find it.  

Check out her blog of photos and poems here:
You can buy Forty-Six here: