Endangered Species – Vanishing Playscapes

Brenda Biondo is a woman on a mission. Over the last six years she’s clocked thousands of miles on the roads of the southwestern United States. Each time she finds a treasure on one of her expeditions of discovery, she parks her car, takes out her camera and proceeds to shoot frame after frame of America’s disappearing vintage playgrounds. Her eyes and sensibilities are recording the zeitgeist of American public play primarily from the 1950s through the 1970s – the pre-plastic era.

Each shot immortalizes equipment that is on an endangered species list. Sometimes Brenda will return to a location six months after her original visit to get a winter shot and the equipment will have been removed. A selection of the best images are posted on her site – Old Playgrounds.

“There’s so much stuff that I’ve shot that’s already been ripped up. I feel there is a sense of urgency that I have to go out and shoot as much as possible as fast as I can before it’s gone.”

Seven years ago Brenda’s oldest child was born. From that moment she wanted to get back into photography. It was an interest that she had first explored in college but to which she had never fully dedicated her time and energy. She decided to go with her guts and breathed new life into her love for telling stories with still images. It’s working well for her and for playground aficionados everywhere.

She recognized the possibilities of playgrounds as a body of work during an excursion with her daughter. It was a thoroughly modern playground but the play of light was intriguing as was the potential for capturing abstract images. “As soon as I started looking I started noticing the older playgrounds and how interesting they were in comparison with the plastic things that are going up everywhere,” she says.

Brenda’s passion to record vintage playgrounds has taken her throughout Colorado and Arizona and to parts of New Mexico and Pennsylvania. Her shooting locations are pretty much aligned with where there are family members who can give her a hand with her young children. For now that is what’s practical but she does want to fan out over greater distances. “I’d really like to get to some of the other states and maybe up into Canada. Right now it’s a little tough to do but that’s my goal eventually to get more geographic diversity in what I’m shooting.”

A standard shooting trip includes a weekend away every few months and a return drive of 500 to 600 miles. Sometimes it’s out toward the Kansas border. “I’ll stay in a hotel overnight and shoot next day on my way back. I stop at all the little towns along the way. I’m not driving around randomly but a lot of the times you have to be kind of lucky to find these tucked away parks.”

It was luck that brought her to a Catholic school yard in Canon City, Colorado. She found an old piece there that has seen better days but is still in use. Her experience tells her that, “It’s been there since the 20s or the 30s and it looks like if somebody doesn’t do something with it soon, it’s not going to last much longer.”

Her photos are beautiful compositions that lovingly capture the instruments of play that many North Americans over the age of 40 scrambled on and over as kids. Viewing the photos, people are transported back through the years rekindling memories from their childhood.

For some, the journey is by rocket. In Boulder, Colorado in the 1960s, a playground was installed to commemorate the exploits of a local son – Scott Carpenter, who in May 1962, was the second American to orbit the earth as part of Project Mercury. The rocket, which still stands, was the centrepiece of the original playground. At an exhibit in Boulder’s Dairy Center for the Arts a few years ago, a photo of the rocket generated excited comments from those attending the opening. Three generations of Boulder residents have spent endless hours of fun imagining space adventures within its sturdy frame. Brenda sold three framed prints to people who had played on the rocket as kids.

There’s a rocket in my childhood too. It was much more modest than the vertical, ready for take off Boulder model. I started looking for a picture of it recently but as of yet, no luck. I remember it though, its 45° angle of trajectory, the orb, that served as the rocket’s nose, just large enough to scrunch up in and its bright primary colours. I can recall all the pieces from this North York, Toronto playground. They’re long gone now though. Unfortunately for me, Brenda never got this far afield.

The accomplished play with light, perspective and juxtaposition bring the photos into the realm of the extraordinary. They are singular works of beauty that also succeed in evoking a longing for play, a reverence for outdoor activity. As a body, the images are an important visual, archival record of the social and cultural dimensions of play Americana.

Brenda has yet to come across any archival institutions or museums that are taking a coordinated approach to documenting these rapidly disappearing playscapes from our past. “I haven’t heard of a playground museum. The stuff gets ripped up and gets trashed or recycled and nobody seems to keep any of it. I have to believe there’s someone out there, some organization that’s interested in preserving some of this history because it’s not going to be around very long.”

Brenda and I discuss the role of public archives and museums in the course of our conversation and she determines that the Smithsonian Institute could have some interest in the documentation, or preservation of playgrounds. We dream a little larger and imagine an outdoor living museum that is full of working equipment dating back as far as the 1920s. It’s a place where kids come to play and learn and experience some of the same simple pleasure thrills and spills as their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.

Brenda is in for the long haul. With the exception of a couple of exhibitions and the website, her time over the last few years has been dedicated primarily to shooting. She is now starting to invest more effort in publicizing the portfolio.

“It’s been fun. It gets me outdoors and I love being outdoors. Now that my kids are a little older I can take them with me to shoot. I think I’m going to be shooting playgrounds for at least the next 10 years, anywhere I see an old one I’m just going to be taking pictures.”

Brenda’s playground prints are available in a limited edition of 85 for each photo. Currently, the only size she prints is approximately [depending on crop] 18 x 12 inches. She prints them herself using archival pigment inks and on premium fine art paper. They’re available framed or unframed. Check Brenda’s website for other details.

If you’re in the Colorado area, Brenda will have 19 of her playground photos on exhibit from March 3 to April 30 at the Reed Photo-Art Gallery in Denver.

At the 2009 Palm Springs Photo Festival, Brenda was one of 16 exhibitors selected from 230 entries. Her slide show was very well received by the audience.

Playgroundology will check in periodically with Brenda for news. She’ll continue shooting in the Colorado area during the spring. In the summer she’ll be in D.C., Virginia and Maryland. If you see an intrepid photographer looking for interesting angles and playing with the light, it could be her.

All photos copyright Brenda Biondo.

Photo locations in order of appearance: Colorado Springs; La Junta, CO; Canon City, CO; Boulder, CO; Denver, CO; Riverview, PA.

All materials, unless otherwise attributed or credited, copyright ⓒ 2010 Alex Smith.

If you’re a non-profit or not-for-profit group, feel free to hyperlink, excerpt, or reproduce the contents of this post. Please reference PlayGroundology. For commercial reproduction of this content, please consult the editor.

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