The Possibilites of Emptiness
by Gregory Spaid
I want to approach Peter Brown's latest book, On the Plains, from the point of view of a photographer. In fact, I am a photographer who has also been inspired to photograph on the Plains and feels a strong kinship with Peter Brown's project. I should acknowledge here, also, that Peter Brown is a friend of mine, which has made this writing both more compelling for me and more difficult, and is the reason why I will refer to him from now on as Peter.
The American Great Plains presents an extreme pictorial challenge to any photographer who wants to give the audience an accurate sense of this unique place. Put simply, how do you photograph a nearly vacant space and make it interesting for more than a few images? In its most severe form there is nothing but the ruler-straight edge of the horizon, the sky aboveand the flat earth below. Above the horizon — if the photographer is lucky — may be a theatrical sky, a few cirrus clouds, perhaps, marching east in formation. Below the horizon there may be the geometric rows of wheat freshly planted or recently harvested. Peter gives us a dramatic version of this type of scene in Plowed field, west of Levelland, Texas (1992). What makes such a scene so compelling, though, to any traveler who stops the car and chooses to notice — as Peter has done often over many years — is more than the eye or the camera can see. A big part of it is the silence, which can be almost perfect and unbroken for impossibly long periods. There is the oceanic panorama that defies being framed by the camera. The ruler edge of the horizon doesn't simple divide the frame top to bottom, it also travels 360 degrees encircling you and defining the bottom edge of that infinite dome above that is the sky. Then there is — sometimes for me, at least — the discovery that I am utterly alone. Between me and the horizon, at every point of the compass, I share this awesome place with no one else. How do you photograph that?
In On the Plains Peter has chosen to take us into this awesome place as we might enter it on a road trip by car, which, he tells us in the book's Afterword, is the way he first experienced the Great Plains as a young boy traveling with his family from California to the family's summer home in Massachusetts. These were the days before air conditioning or a completed interstate highway system, when his family made the round trip across the country each summer. The experience of these trips was vivid for a boy of thirteen or so, and the memory strong enough to become the seed of imagination that is the foundation for this book.
Something similar happened to me. When I was five my family moved to McCook on the southwestern plains of Nebraska so that my father could take a job as editor of the town's daily newspaper. We lived in McCook for only one year before my father moved to a larger newspaper, but my memories of living there are indelible and have shaped my current fascination with the Plains, motivating me to return there often to make photographs.
Anyone who has traveled east or west across the Plains off the interstate knows there is a rhythm to the trip, a rhythm determined by the regular spacing of small towns. These towns were constructed along the railroad at the necessaryinterval required for watering steam engines. They contribute to American slang the condescending term, "jerkwater town." A trip east or west across the Plains is a continual process of entering and leaving these small towns. Peter has chosen to use this experience for the structure of his book. First, we experience the open spaces of the land; then we enter a small town; then a somewhat larger town; and, finally, we go back out into the wide-open spaces again. This structure gives the book a beginning, middle and end, and the sense of a cycle that returns us to where we began — out on the plains.
The question of how to treat the people who live on the Plains was, I suspect, another major photographic and conceptual challenge of this work. Without showing people directly, the first two images of the book imply that people are here, even community. The first image, White road, west of Utleyville, Colorado 6991), is of a mailbox beside a long dirt road that trails over the horizon, a common scene on rolling plains, suggesting someone must live way out that road beyond sight. The second image of the book, Welcome to Our Community, Buffalo Gap, South Dakota (1993) is of a publicly-posted hand-painted map along the highway. These maps are often erected on the Plains to help locate where people live. The Riverside Grange of Buffalo Gap sponsors this one as a public service. But the map is aging. The paint is fading and peeling. Some names are barely readable, others not at all. For me, these first two images announce a theme: people are here on these plains, but they are hard to find, not often seen, and they are disappearing. This is consistent with the demographics of the region. Larger and larger farms worked by fewer farmers and less opportunity for young people, among other factors, have caused the population of many parts of the Great Plains to drop dramatically, sometimes to levels below that of a hundred years ago.
Peter's treatment of people in this book suggests their scarcity and their struggle. Of the 87 photographs in the book, only 14 show people at all, and only seven of those are what we might call portraits. Even in those there is no sense of intimacy. Typically, Peter photographs people from a long distance, emphasizing their relationship with the environment that surrounds them more than revealing their individuality or expression of emotion. In Yard sale, Water/low, New Mexico(1987), for instance, we see a boy in the doorway of a mobile home, but the subject of the photograph is not the boy, himself, but instead, the relationship of the boy to the space that surrounds him, the place we presume to be his home that includes a yard full of the items of a permanent yard sale. While this approach to photographing people does not lead to a sense of intimacy with people, it does reinforce the sense that Peter's subject is the place itself, the Great Plains, and not individuals who live there. This approach may be the most honest one Peter could take. He is, after all, just traveling through, as he has been doing repeatedly since he was a boy. He is not from this place he photographs so affectionately, nor does he live there now. In this way Peter's perspective on his subject is quite different from that of Kathleen Norris who writes the introduction to On the Plains from an insider's point of view as a current resident of a small town in western South Dakota.
Although Peter has chosen to photograph directly very few people, the book is full of evidence of hard lives lived on the Plains. For example, in the last photograph of the book, Prairie grave, western Kansas (1992), the prairie vegetation that is reclaiming the land almost totally obscures the evidence of the grave. The prairie grasses have done to the grave what the weather has done to the community map at the beginning of the book, suggesting that human habitation on the Plains is temporary, at best always a struggle, and ultimately, perhaps, in vain. This is a theme well developed in literature by O. E. Rolvaag in his classic novel, Giants in the Earth, and by Willa Gather in O Pioneers. The theme was revisited in actual events by the Farm Security Administration photographers during the Dust Bowl period of the 19305, especially in the work of Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein.
While the photographs in this book may evoke some themes of Farm Security Administration photographs, they certainly would not be mistaken for them. This is work of a new and different order. One of the biggest differences is that these photographs are in color, and in a particular style of color that Peter has perfected over the years. This is subtle color that is almost pastel; so subtle, in some cases, it is almost not there at all. Some of my favorite photographs in the book fallinto this category, like Road leaving town, Marathon, Texas, (1988) and Railroad sheds, Newcastle, Wyoming (1995). I find the color here to be exquisitely minimal, yet evoking a kind of longing and sense of decay, like the muted beauty of dried flowers that today remind us of a more vivid past. Elsewhere, Peter's colors are somewhat more pronounced, yet they never reach the dense saturation we might imagine, for instance, in a National Geographic article on the Great Plains. His are quieter colors, consistent with a place that gives itself up slowly to the eye. In her wonderful meditation about the Plains, Dakota, A Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris writes about the visual experience of the Plains in a chapter titledSeeing. She says, "Here the eye learns to appreciate slight variations, the possibilities inherent in emptiness." Clearly, Peter has learned that lesson well. And later, she writes: "A person is forced inward by the spareness of what is outward and visible in this land and sky. The beauty of the Plains is like that of an icon; it does not give an inch
to sentiment or romance."
Something about small towns on the Plains reminds me of the toy buildings that go with model trains. Signs on thesebuildings, especially the commercial ones, declare what they are boldly and gener-ically. The bank is just the "Bank." The beauty salon is "Beauty Salon," the "Senior Citizens Center," the "City Hall," "Community Pool," and "Bakery." No need to say more on the fronts of these humble buildings, because there is only one bank or bakery in town. Peter hasphotographed several of these characteristic buildings and presented them frontally and symmetrically to emphasize their iconic nature. These are portraits, in a sense, of buildings, and they serve to express something of the life and culture of the Plains. On one spread in the book we see an architectural version of good
and evil: a white gabled back of a humble church in Champion Corners, Colorado, with its simple cross painted in red, is set against the image on the opposite page of the rusticated stone facade of a jail in Clairemont, Texas, with bars on the windows. The church is light and ethereal, while the jail is heavy and earthen. Yet both buildings express a kind of resolve,as though they have stood up to the ravages of weather and time on the Plains and declare their survival with some pride. Talking about buildings in this way may seem curious, but on the Great Plains the vast space that often frames a building tends to concentrate and amplify the building's ability to be read as an icon. These buildings — usually inspired by European building styles, rather than native American — often create a strong vertical counterpoint to the pervasive hor-izontality of the land. For that reason they pop out of the landscape, expressing ideas of overcoming the forces of nature rather than molding to those forces. For me, at least, these buildings seem defiant.
One way to measure Peter's success in describing the Great Plains in this book is to ask what he may have left out that is important. I can think of only a few things worth mentioning. We don't encounter in this book the monster machines that now roam the Plains: the tractors and planters, sprayers and combines that make it possible for one person to farm thousands of acres of row crops. We see no pivot irrigation systems that bring wetland farming to arid zones and create the wondrous quilt of circles within squares we see when we fly over much of the central United States. (These irrigated circles are the subject of some of Emmet Gowin's recent work on the Plains, which he photographs from the air in black and white, evoking simultaneously their orderly abstract beauty and their potential for environmental destruction.) All this new, complex and expensive technology is changing both the physical appearance of the Plains and the culture, and many observers feel the change is not for the better.
I would also put in a word for the cafes, coffee shops and senior citizen centers that are a common fixture of almost everyPlains town. Usually these are the places where the action is, where people — mostly older people — gather daily to maintain what remains of community and traditional Plains' culture.
But this book is not intended to be exhaustive. The Plains is too big a place to be covered comprehensively. This book is much more a personal interpretation of a place that stirs Peter's creative juices, a place that touches him deeply and motivates him to share his experiences with us in these photographs, and also, in his beautifully written Afterword.
The Great Plains is not a place for everyone. Some people even experience an intense visceral anxiety when faced with so much space filled with so little distraction. This book is like the Plains. It offers the reader repose, a sense of calm and quiet, an opportunity to pause and find meaning and beauty in the commonplace seen clearly. The experience is verymuch like an extended drive through western Kansas, perhaps, with an experienced and perceptive guide who knows exactly where to point.
Gregory Spaid is a photographer working on a project on rural America, a writer and assistant provost at Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio. His work is in various public and private collections including the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian Institution and the J. Paul Getty Museum.