Mayors across America: ready for their close-up

By Stephen Lowman

Heads would turn and eyebrows would rise when Ed Morris and his riding partner Tim Hovey pedaled into town. Sporting Spandex shorts and probably a bit sweaty, they would hop off their bicycles and ask a local if they knew the mayor.

Why?

Morris wanted to take the mayor's picture.

The 87 mayors Morris photographed over a span of 10 weeks have been compiled in the coffee table book "Mayors Across America: A 3,600 Mile Bicycle Journey Documenting the American Mayor." Morris, who grew up in Severna Park, Md., undertook the journey in 2000 for an independent study class at Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Despite their Spandex and odd request, Morris said the mayors "treated us with incredible hospitality." In fact, he was only turned down twice: in Chicago and in a village of 300 people whose name he cannot remember. Morris lives in Newport Beach, Calif. where he works as a commercial photographer. I recently spoke with him about the project.

Why did you decide to focus on mayors?
The mayors wound up working really well for what I wanted to do, which was to document rural towns and juxtapose them to larger metropolitan cities. The mayor really is a representation of the town -- its socio-economic status and all those other characteristics. Each mayor really was a reflection of his or her community.

How much time would you spend with them?
Occasionally, in the smaller towns, a mayor might buy us a meal and we'd get to chat with him for a couple of hours. More often then not, it was probably 20 to 30 minutes. In the case of Washington, D.C., we had to be at the spot where we knew he would be passing by. At that time it was Anthony Williams. So we waited outside a building and as he walked out he stopped and turned towards us. We had maybe 25 seconds with him. Then he got into his car and off he went. It's indicative of the size and importance of the city.

When you roll into town, how do you find the mayor?
In the larger cities we had to call ahead to get an appointment. I believe we only had to do that five or six times. In the small towns you could literally go into the post office or a café or a library, if they have one. Invariably someone will know who the mayor is or at least be able to point you to someone who does. In a number of cases it was a matter of tracking them down in their place of work, because in many places being a mayor is not a full-time position.

Mayor Gary Hall of Columbia Falls, Mont., is standing in front of Costco.
He was working in the Costco and couldn't take off time. So he came out and that was the location. That happened a number of times.

What are differences between the mayor of a city and the mayor of a small town?
I don't know exactly where the threshold is, but at a certain point the job definitely changes. When you're in a smaller town, it's really someone who is volunteering their time to make sure the basic city services are provided for. In those towns it's a humbler position and probably often a thankless one. But once you cross that threshold and it becomes a paid position and a political position, I think it becomes something very different at that point.

What did you learn about the country?
You sometimes hear people say that the U.S. doesn't have any culture. I know that to be utterly false. It's just subtle and sometimes hard to see. The second thing I tell people is that I've now spent a total of three months riding a bicycle across the country -- camping in parks and fields and riding on the highways. There were virtually no real instances of crime or anybody vandalizing our stuff. People get a lot of bad news, and I think there is a lot of good news out there that just doesn't get reported.

By Steven E. Levingston |  December 30, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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Oh, my: "peddled into town"?

No budget for copyeditors?

Posted by: Antoinette1 | January 1, 2010 8:02 PM

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