Tag Archives: Photography



In spite of everything, this seemed like a good time to head to the end of the road. Driving north from San Francisco, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada is where the pavement ends. From there, If you draw a line from Yellowknife to the North Pole you would find no roads. Ellen is off organizing a big Colorado photography reunion for the Fall, so my traveling companion on this trip is our son, Walker Dawson. Like our big Library Road Trips of 2011 and 2012, this is another epic father-son bonding road trip.

We left a strangely warm San Francisco and scooted up Highway 5 and then over to Bend, OR. This wonderful town has been discovered as a remarkable small Western town that has grown dramatically with people fleeing the large urban West Coast cities of Seattle, Portland, the Bay Area and Southern California. Our hipster tacos were delicious but as we tried to sleep in our cheap motel, we were interrupted in the middle of the night by a tweaker party in the room below that lasted for several hours. Nothing like being back on the road.

After a fairly sleepless night, we drove 14 hours north by northeast through eastern Oregon, the Columbia River basin, Spokane, and then eastern Washington to the border. The Canadian border guard was a little puzzled when I said we were really excited about seeing Edmonton. We then proceeded to have one of the most beautiful drives that I have ever experienced. This part of the Canadian Rockies is just north of Glacier National Park and just south of Banff National Park. But it is just as beautiful as its more famous neighbors. The weather cooperated as well with a dramatic dusting of snow and rain as we drove through massive, jagged, heavily snow-covered peaks towering in the sky filled with enormous clouds. Spots of sunlight occasionally ripped through the complicated weather. I realized that my ability to comprehend the profound beauty around us was limited but I knew that this was a great, life-changing experience.

The one library I photographed in the Rockies was in Ferney, British Columbia. A major ski resort exists here but the downtown of this former mining town had been restored in a beautiful and not overly precious way. The library was a classic old brick building offset by the huge, snow-clad peaks surrounding it. Two of the windows contained displays with red dresses and signs about “missing sisters”. This reminded me of the sad displays we saw in Canada in 2019 about the ongoing tragedy of missing Indigenous women.

As we exited the Canadian Rockies we entered the Canadian Great Plains. We arrived exhausted in Lethbridge, Alberta after our long drive, glad to have traveled so far and seen so much beauty. Sleeping that night was more like passing out after the previous night of no sleep. The next morning, we decided to photograph the childhood home of an old friend of ours from the Bay Area. His family left Lethbridge in 1957, but he spent the formative part of his childhood in this house. As we pulled up to front of this humble little home, we found it surrounded by a chain-linked fence and a crime-scene sign posted by the police. A passing neighbor explained that the place had been raided by the police five days ago and it had been a famous and dangerous drug house for the last three years. Guys in hazmat suits had been cleaning it out over the last few days and it would soon be torn down because it was beyond repair. It was hard to comprehend the tragedy of this place and to link it to the sweet memories of our friend’s childhood memories. But as is often the case when traveling, truth can be stranger than fiction.  


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The Return of the Library Road Trip, Cautiously

The Return of the Library Road Trip, Cautiously

The world has dramatically changed since our last Library Road Trip post in October 2019. Fortunately, Trump is gone. Unfortunately, Covid is not. We feel that there are still many miles to go before we put this project to sleep. We are returning to the road to drive across country to our little cabin in the woods in Vermont for the month of September. While we are on the way and on the return, we will explore two themes that emerged from our last LRT in 2019. We will photograph the complicated interaction of race and segregation on libraries throughout the country. The first place we will photograph will be the Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa, OK. This formally thriving African American neighborhood was mostly burned to the ground by a white mob in 1921. This destruction included the segregated public library in Greenwood which is still an empty lot. We will photograph other libraries in the South that were significant in the heroic struggle to desegregate these important parts of our national civic commons.

My research has benefitted by reading two books: The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South by Wayne and Shirley Wiegand and also Freedom Libraries The Untold Story of Libraries for African Americans in the South by Mike Selby. Freedom Libraries were established during the Civil Rights struggle in the South in the 1960s when the main libraries initially refused to desegregate. We will be visiting several of these during our drive through the South. It is hard to understand today how people were thrown in jail and sometimes savagely beaten for wanting to check out a book from a public library.

Police officers in Albany, Georgia carry a demonstrator down the steps of the Albany Carnegie Library during a civil rights protest.

Our second area of interest that came out of our 2019 LRT was the forced removal of Indigenous children from their homes into “Indian Schools”. We saw examples of this in our drive across Canada and have been reading more about this recently with the discovery of unmarked graves of children in some of these former schools. As much as we have championed education for all poor children as a way out of poverty, this form of education was closer to cultural genocide. We will be visiting one of the first, largest and most famous of these schools in the US called the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Ironically, it now houses the US Army War College.

Canadian Indian Residential Schools (grid)
Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Carlisle, Pennsylvania

Starting August 20th, we will be on the road for approximately two months. We will cautiously made our way through the parts of the country that are experiencing the recent spike with the Covid virus’ Delta variant. We are vaccinated and we will be wearing masks and keeping our heads down everywhere. And being very cautious!

I will be writing occasional posts from the road as a record of our journey. We would love to hear your feedback along the way. As always, feel free to opt out of receiving these posts if you wish.



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Lots of water under the bridge since I last wrote. Quite simply, it has been one of the more amazing times of my life! And one of the more rewarding times as well.

I mentioned in the last blog that we had applied for a large-scale Creative Work Fund grant. It is a San Francisco Bay Area based grant for people working at the intersection of art and social change. They are very difficult grants to get and to our absolute amazement we received the award last Fall for our project in Stockton, CA. Stockton is the second largest city in the country to declare bankruptcy and one of the least literate cities in the nation. My wife Ellen Manchester and I will be looking at efforts to bring literacy and hope to this very dysfunctional place. We are working with a group called the Library and Literacy Foundation of San Joaquin County and also the San Joaquin County Library system. The grant will help get this project started but we will need to raise additional funds to complete the project. More grants to write! After 18 years of looking at libraries throughout the United States we will spend the next year looking at one library system. From the macro to the micro. The following are some preliminary images from Stockton including a portrait of me with Mas’ood Cajee who is our contact with the Library and Literacy Foundation. He has a remarkable life story and his day job is being a dentist.

Ellen at Stockton Asparagus Festival, Stockton, CA

Ellen at the Stockton Asparagus Festival, Stockton, CA

Hmong videotapes, Angelou Library, Stockton, CA


Hmong videotapes, Maya Angelou Branch Library, Stockton, CA

Lightroom (DSC_0339.NEF and 5 others)

Languages, Main Library, Stockton, CA

Masood and Bob, Stockton, CA

Mas’ood and Bob, Main Library, Stockton, CA

Trivia Bee, Stockton, CA

Five hundred people supporting literacy at the Stockton Trivia Bee, Stockton, CA



We officially launched the book The Public Library A Photographic Essay in New York City in mid-March. Ellen, our son Walker and I flew back and I gave the kick-off lecture at the main library in Brooklyn on March 20th. I also gave another slide show/lecture at the Mid-Manhattan library on the 26th. Both were well attended and really gave me the idea that the book will be well received. During this week the publisher, Princeton Architectural Press, told me that they are already starting to do a second printing of the book just from all the pre-sales. Yikes! We met and had dinner with several dear friends during our time in New York. One of the highlights of the trip was meeting and delivering a book to Bill Moyers at his office in Manhattan. Ellen said that meeting him was one of the great moments in her life. The photo of her being hugged by Moyers shows her beaming! The books finally hit the bookstores at the beginning of April. After a twenty year gestation period it was nice to see it finally out in the world.

The week in New York began a long series of interviews and articles about the book and the project. These include stories in the New Yorker online, the Wall Street Journal, the Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, The Christian Science Monitor, ArchNewsNow, Goodreads, New York Journal of Books, Seattle Pi, Book Page, Design Observer, The Morning News, SF Gate blog, FastCompany, Gizomodo, NPR Books tumblr, Architecture and Artisnas, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Bob Edwards show on NPR, the Scott Simon show on NPR, CNN, radio station WICN in MA, BYU Radio, the Los Angeles Times, Parade Magazine, Lost at E Minor, Scratch, Lonny, The Dish at Stanford, the Paris Review blog, Shelf Awareness, Next City, the Findery, etc. This is certainly my fifteen minutes of fame! I am sure that there will be more to come.

Book cover

Bob at NYPL

Bob at the New York Public Library, New York, NY

Bill Moyers and Ellen

Bill Moyers and Ellen, New York, NY

Books for sale, SF

The Public Library A Photographic Essay on sale at Folio Books, San Francisco, CA

One of the strangest things to come out of all this shows the reach of the media. I received an email from a retired lawyer in Texas saying that he had heard my NPR interview with Scott Simon. He asked if I had ever photographed the library in Deer Lodge, MT. I sent him a photo of the Kohrs Library in Deer Lodge that I had made in 2000. I explained to him that my mother came from an old pioneering family that had first settled the area in the 1860s. He wrote back and asked me her name. It turns out he is a long-lost cousin from a branch of my mother’s family that I was unaware of. Talk about six degrees of separation! When I had a reception at the University of California at Santa Cruz of a show with Joel Leivick and David Pace another long-lost cousin showed up and we met. Here is a photo of Alan Burns from Missoula, MT (brother of Dennis Burns, the retired lawyer from Texas), my sister Jane Dawson and I at a coffee shop in Santa Cruz.

Alan, Jane and RD

Alan Burns, Jane Dawson and Bob



During the same week that the book was officially launched it was announced that I had received a Guggenheim Fellowship. I had known about the Guggenheim for about a month before they announced it. I had wanted to jump up and down and let everyone know that I had received it but they have a policy of waiting until they officially announce it. The following week one of my former Stanford photography students, Josh Hanner received a Pulitzer Prize in Photography. Needless to say, April was a very good month. A friend of ours, Greg Conniff had received a Guggenheim Fellowship several years ago. More importantly than the fame or money associated with the Guggenheim was the energy receiving the Fellowship gave him. I am very humbled by knowing the long list of great photographers that got this award in the past. I hope that the work I do over the next year will be worthy of this endorsement.



This has been a period a great transitions and accomplishments, large and small. One large effort that I was a small part of is the new exhibit and book from Stanford’s Cantor Art Center called Carleton Watkins The Stanford Albums. I have one essay in this beautiful book. In writing the essay it was nice for me to be able to combine my art history background with being a working photographer.


I finally went to one of my James Marshall high school class reunions. I was in the class of 1968 and at the reunion I was somewhat overwhelmed at talking with people I hadn’t seen in 46 years. Fortunately we all had nametags. Ellen gets the award for bravery for spending the evening at a VFW hall in West Sacramento with a room full of strangers and me. We did drive up to the reunion with my friend and classmate Nils Ohlson. Here is a photo of us in our letter sweaters. They still fit!

RD&Nils Marshall High reunion

Bob and Nils, West Sacramento, CA

One of the biggest transitions for me right now is retiring from teaching photography at San Jose State after 28 years. I’m sad to leave my colleagues there but glad to have more time to work on my projects. I will continue to teach photography at Stanford. Because of all this Ellen and I decided to take a weekend vacation to one of our favorite places, Camp Richardsons at Lake Tahoe with our friends Thom Sempere and his wife Susan. Four days of riding bikes, hiking, great conversations and doing nothing was bliss! Here is a photo of Ellen and I on the beach and me chillin’ under the pines.

RD and Ellen, Lake Tahoe, CA

RD chillin' at Tahoe

The following is a list of upcoming talks I will be giving in the Bay Area in June.


June 5, 2014

Architecture of Knowledge: A Photographic Survey of America’s Libraries

Photographer Robert Dawson in conversation with SF Chronicle architecture critic John King about Dawson’s 18-year project and new book “The Public Library: A Photographic Essay by Robert Dawson”

Book signing to follow

7:00 pm Tickets $10-$15


414 Brannan St



June 11, 2014

Photographer Robert Dawson in conversation with Luis Herrera, City Librarian about Dawson’s new book “The Public Library: A Photographic Essay by Robert Dawson”

Book signing to follow

6:00 pm FREE

San Francisco Public Library

100 Larkin



June 12, 2014

Photographer Robert Dawson in conversation with Dorothy Lazard, Librarian at the Oakland Public Library about Dawson’s new book “The Public Library: A Photographic Essay by Robert Dawson”

Book signing to follow

6:00 pm FREE

Oakland Main Library

125  14th Street at Oak




Here are some other talks I will be giving throughout the country this summer and fall. You are invited to attend any of these if you are in the area.


Sunday, June 29, 2014

Artist’s talk, panel discussion and book signing

American Library Association annual conference

3:00 pm

Las Vegas, NV



Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Artist talk and book signing

7:00 pm FREE

Howe Library

Hanover, NH



Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Artist talk and book signing

92nd Street Y

12:00 noon Tickets available

1395 Lexington Ave

New York, NY



Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Artist talk and book signing

Strand Bookstore

Tentative date. TBD

828 Broadway

New York, NY


Saturday, October 11, 2014

Artist talk and book signing

Noe Valley/Sally Brunn Branch San Francisco Public Library

2:00 pm FREE

451 Jersey St

San Francisco, CA 94114


Friday, November 7, 2014

Artist talk and book signing

California Library Association annual conference

Oakland City Center Marriott

Oakland, CA



Walker will be leaving next month for a yearlong trip throughout South America with his friend Nick Neumann. They will be photographing, filming and blogging from the road. Ellen and I will be spending the rest of our free time working on the library and literacy project in Stockton. We look forward to hearing from you and, as always, would appreciate any feedback you may have on this blog. We always enjoy hearing from you. To be continued….

Ellen and farm worker school, French Camp, CA

Ellen photographing a school for children of farm workers, French Camp, San Joaquin County, CA

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It has been a long time since I posted a blog on my Public Library project. I wanted to bring you up to date on this amazing journey and let you know about upcoming events. My last post came shortly after my 2012 summer Library Road Trip with Walker. Later, after looking at my work from the whole project I realized that I had photographed a lot of libraries in poor communities but few in wealthy ones. Some of the wealthiest communities in the nation are right here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Walker and I photographed several libraries in Silicon Valley and Marin County. It helped to balance out the project.

I soon became caught up in my normal, crazy academic schedule teaching five classes at two universities. I also came down with what turned out to be a long-term staph infection in my sinuses. I am finally over most of it. In the Fall, 2012 and Spring, 2013 I began working closely with Princeton Architectural Press producing the book. Late in the Fall we spent the Thanksgiving holiday in New York and later in New England with Walker, Ellen, her brother John Manchester and his wife Kate. We were in New York City two weeks after Hurricane Sandy had devastated the area. Our friend Stanley Greenberg took us out to the Rockaways along the Brooklyn shoreline. The branch library there had just been emptied of its water-soaked books. Parked in front was a Queens Library bookmobile. It was one of the few places around where people could recharge their cell phones, get on the internet of just get warm. I took the last photographs for the project of that sheltering mobile library.

The Spring of 2013 was probably the busiest and most stressful time of my life. In addition to my academic responsibilities and being sick I was working full-time on the book. I also applied for and received a Graham Foundation grant to work on the Public Library project. I also applied and am currently a finalist for a Creative Work Fund grant to document the library and literacy campaigns in the distressed city of Stockton, CA. If I receive the grant it could provide a new direction for my project beyond the publication of the book. Added to all this I produced a 30 year retrospective exhibition of my work for a show at the Thomas Welton Stanford Gallery at Stanford University. Whew! No wonder I felt exhausted all Spring.

Putting together all the parts of this very complex book took up all of my free time. Throughout the Spring I was literally working seven days a week. Working with my two editors at Princeton was a delight. Sara Bader and Sara Stemen are real professionals and have been very patient with all my distractions. It is nice to work with people that know the English language so much better than I do and, at the same time, penetrate the complexity of legal contracts with writers and publishers. And they did this with humor and wisdom! I know that I have been lucky working with the two Saras. Equally important was the help and encouragement from my wife Ellen and our son Walker. I literally could not have done this project without them. The production of the book involved selecting and sequencing the images; finalizing the text, labels and extended captions; getting permissions from the writers, their agents or publishers and countless little details that needed attention.

The big day arrived in mid-April when Ellen and I finished everything, put all the book parts in a box and sent it off to Princeton. Afterwards, we even had time for dinner and a much-appreciated glass of wine. Later in the Spring we received the first two edits of the book by email. We met with Princeton in New York in mid-July when they had literally just printed out the first hard copy of the book mock-up. We took it with us to our little cabin in the woods in Vermont and sent it back a few weeks later. In early September I sent back the second version of the mock-up to Princeton. After approving the cover design I have been working with Princeton’s publicity person to develop a plan to publicize the book. I have also been working on lots of little details since then.

A website and traveling exhibition are part of our future tasks. I will keep you informed as we get closer to our publication date of April, 2014. Until then, please stay tuned and stay in touch.


Redwoods, Mill Valley library, Mill Valley, CA


Bookmobile, Rockaways, NY


Print selection, San Francisco, CA


Assistant print selector, San Francisco, CA


Laying out the book, San Francisco, CA


Final design and layout, San Francisco, CA


Initial mock-up, San Francisco, CA


Last details, April, 2013, San Francisco, CA


Last proof read, April, 2013, San Francisco, CA


Ellen packing it up!, April, 2013, San Francisco, CA


Editing first print out, Vermont


Swatting flies and editing book, Vermont


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So Many Libraries, So Little Time

Armijo branch, El Paso, TX

Armijo branch, El Paso, TX

Coal sign in library, Williamson, WV

Coal sign in library, Williamson, WV

Cowboy hat in reading room, Main Library, Cleveland, OH

Cowboy hat in reading room, Main Library, Cleveland, OH

ImageDarkened interior, no AC, record heat, Tchula, MS

Darkened interior, no AC, record heat, Tchula, MS

Fannie Lou Hamer Library, Jackson, MS

Fannie Lou Hamer Library, Jackson, MS

Flags and Carnegie Library, Las Vegas, NM

Flags and Carnegie Library, Las Vegas, NM

Guitar and library, Muskogee, OK

Guitar and library, Muskogee, OK

Navajo Library, Window Rock, AZ

Navajo Library, Window Rock, AZ

New and old libraries in Cherokee Capitol, Tahlequah, OK (diptych)

New and old libraries in Cherokee Capitol, Tahlequah, OK (diptych)

Main Library, Newark, NJ

Main Library, Newark, NJ

Stairway in Main Library, Midland, TX

Stairway in Main Library, Midland, TX

Three murals and ceiling, Main Library, Detroit, MI

Three murals and ceiling, Main Library, Detroit, MI

West branch Carnegie Library, Louisville, KY

West branch Carnegie Library, Louisville, KY

Main Library, Winchester, VA

Main Library, Winchester, VA


3/26/12 – I had threatened to do this for a while. I am now posting a small selection of images from last summer’s Library Road Trip. The previous images on this blog were all quick recording shots taken with my little Canon G-10 at the same time as I was shooting my larger film cameras. The final shots were all on film and I have never posted these before. I am doing it now because I finally finished developing and spotting the 300+ images that have been edited from the trip. Finally, these pictures can begin to see the light of day. I selected these fifteen images to be somewhat representative of the diversity of libraries we encountered last summer.

Things are progressing with the book project. We are actively looking for writers to be included in the book and I will let you know how it goes. Any suggestions of writers that you think would be appropriate would be greatly appreciated. I just received a wonderful hand-written letter from Wendell Berry. It was a rejection but I am going to frame it anyway.

This summer will be the last of the Library Road Trip field work. Walker and I will do our last tour through the upper Mid-West including Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado.  This is the last region in the country that I have not yet photographed for this project. We will do it more or less in this order and plan on spending four weeks on the road starting around June 12th. If you have any contacts or suggestions of libraries to photograph or places to stay it would also be much appreciated.

After I get back from the trip in mid-July I will spend the rest of the summer developing and editing the film, working on the book and getting ready for a big exhibit of this work at Stanford University’s Art Gallery.  That exhibit is scheduled for the winter of 2013 and will include work from the 2011 and 2012 summer Library Road Trips and my recent short trip to southern Nevada and Utah. It will be a good way for me to focus this new work. In conjunction with the earlier exhibit produced for the San Francisco Public Library during the spring of 2011, I hope to produce the core of a traveling exhibit that can tour around the country for several years. That traveling exhibit, in combination with the large-scale book will be the final expression of this massive project. But I have miles to go before I get there. So many libraries, so little time. Stay tuned.

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