A Fun Year in Review

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A Fun Year in Review

1.6.15

January – Prairie Ribbon, a canvas that was chosen in three juried shows in 2015.

On the evening of the Winter Solstice, a dear friend was photographing people at the party with an ancient 35 mm Leica. When I was studying photojournalism at the University of Missouri, the purists (with money) used Leicas because they were incredibly quiet when compared with the Nikons of the day. A “purist” would suggest that the Leica was much less intrusive, allowing them to photograph life more covertly.

My friend is a fine photographer, and his photographs from the party were well done. At one point as we sat around a campfire we talked about Leicas, of photography, and of photojournalism. He asked specifically if I still photographed people. “Not so much,” I answered. “After 50 some years of people journalism as a career, I’m enjoying my freedom.”

When I look back at my career, especially this time of year, there is one aspect I do miss from those years working for newspapers: choosing your favorite photograph of the year. The main reason for the assignment was to fill the news hole in the time between Christmas and New Years when life typically slows for a week. While it was fun to look over a body of work to see if there was professional growth, it was equally fun to see if a particular story or photograph stood the test of time.

So now, in my second “career,” I’ve assigned myself to review my latest body of work — capturing that last one percent of the remaining remnants of prairie in the pothole region of Minnesota. Making this an interesting year for me was in trying to emulate a couple of very talented artists who embraced personal assignments of creating a meaningful image one day at a time. The idea came to me about this time a year ago as I watched an artist friend who lives near Duluth complete painting a day for an entire year. Many of us, including that artist, Karen Savage, was inspired by the work of nature photographer Jim Brandenburg, who has now published two books of photographs comprised of shooting one frame a day for 90 straight days. If Brandenburg and Savage could commit to such discipline, then I could as well.

Although it sounds simple in concept, the reality isn’t as simple as it sounds. There were days when I took only a single frame. Other days I had a variety to choose from. The challenge is to avoid falling into a subject and lighting rut. You should be aware of subject variance, a mix of focus, varying the light and natural color — and there were those gray, dull winter-ish days when getting an image with any kind of light was a challenge.

Starting almost a year ago on January 1, 2015, Rebecca and I took a walk on our home prairie and I captured my first image. On the second, I took another. And so on for all of January into February, which included a trip to Norway for two weeks where I was able to keep the string going. Upon returning home I kept up the effort until a day when I was actually too sick from the flu to climb from bed. By then I was up to 71 days. Though the chain of days was broken, over the course of the year I still made it into the prairie several times a week to continue the quest. Needless to say, I have a huge body of work from 2015.

Yes, it was a very good year. It was both fun and successful. My Prairie Impressions collection was exhibited in two galleries as single artist hangings , and some of my images were chosen in three juried exhibits —  the <5000 at the Center For Small Towns at the University of Minnesota-Morris; the annual Horizontal Grandeur in Morris; and Artscape 2015 in New Ulm. I also compiled a completely separate exhibit titled the Art of Erosion with sponsorship from CURE (Clean Up the River Environment). That show had three hangings in 2015, and is scheduled for at least two for this coming year, including a regional Smithsonian Institute exhibit at Prairie Wood Environmental Learning Center starting in July. This was also my second year on the Upper Minnesota River Arts Meander. Selected canvases were also on exhibit at the Art House in Ortonville, and in the lobby of Big Stone State Park.

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December – a doe and yearling fawn in prairie grass coated with hoarfrost.

In addition, my Prairie Impressions work is scheduled for shows in Montevideo in February and in Willmar next July and August.

In making this selection, my goal was to select a single image from each month. Some months were simple, where one photograph simply stood out from the rest. Some months were more difficult. Actually, from April through December as many as seven photographs were on the board before a final selection was made. Yet, it was all in fun. And, I also chose one photograph as my favorite of the year  for a “baker’s dozen.” Hopefully you will find my exercise entertaining and will enjoy the photography.

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Favorite of the year, a country road near us after a sunset.

So, Happy New Year, everyone! May we all be healthy and happy as we move through the coming days, weeks and months of the new year.

Horizons

Often I feel haunted by what might have been, or perhaps more accurately, how it used to be — while realizing it will never be. I write of the prairie, or again more accurately, of what was formerly the prairie.

This haunting came back to me one recent foggy morning while standing on a rise overlooking a frozen wetland near our farm. With the low morning sun and the fog, it was nearly impossible to make out the rows of untilled corn stalks adjacent to the native grasses. We are fortunate that our neighbors in Minnesota’s Big Stone County have retained many of their wetlands, so once again my mind played the what-might-have-been card. On mornings like these you can almost see back to yesteryear without even closing your eyes. There in front of me was the “ghost” of a prairie horizon, ghosts of which I’ve been seeking to photograph for a few years now.

After years of capturing intimate images of pieces of the fractured prairie, one late afternoon I pulled off the gravel road that divides the Bonanza Area of Big Stone State Park and gazed up at the native prairie grasses and burr oaks that grace the hills above the lake. As I watched the winds caress the spindly spines of bluestem and Indian grass, I realized I was viewing a rare scene — an actual, almost pure prairie horizon. Of course, just out of sight and over the cusp was a woven wire fence, and there was the road, so this was at best a narrow ribbon tease of the distant past. That was when I began to wonder if could I pull away from my close up style of prairie imagery that has gained me a fair audience over time and make photographs of horizons? Was it possible to do both effectively?

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Prairie grasses and burr oaks give visitors to the Bonanza area of Big Stone State Park a glimpse of an original prairie landscape.

In those “artist statements” required of the juried shows, I use a basic personal “boiler plate” where I describe my goal of portraying this last one percent of (a previous landscape, environmental ecology and/or biome) prairie potholes that was once a signature of most of Western Minnesota and the East River region of the Dakotas. Nowhere on earth has man so altered a natural biome. Yes, 99 percent of the native prairie and a like percentage of the wetlands (potholes, sloughs or shallow lakes) has been ditched, tiled and drained and replaced by what in the last 70 plus years has “evolved” into industrialized agriculture. Truthfully, no one alive today can recall the pre-settler landscape. It’s long gone.

Cottonwoods on Lost Creek

Are the cottonwoods along Lost Creek a look into the past?

As I tried to change my viewing away from details to vistas, I was in for a mild surprise: the nearly impossibility to shoot a picture of a horizon, or landscape, without showing some affect of mankind. Power lines. Jet contrails in the sky. Row crops. A house or abandoned farm grove. Or, if you’re a rigid prairie fanatic, and yes, there are some around, who find non-native trees that have taken root just as invasive as the roads and power lines. In the olden days before settlement, native tree species on the uplands were basically burr oaks. In the wetlands you could supposedly find willows rising from the cattails, and along the rivers, tall and commanding cottonwoods. Most of the rest of the tree species were introduced. Cores pulled from the few remaining wetlands provide clues to what was alive since the last glacier 12,000 years ago.

So, in short, my work to capture a series I had intended to call “Horizons” has not worked out, although that doesn’t stop me from dreaming as I did on this recent foggy morning.

This isn’t to say I advocate returning the prairie to pre-settlement days as some of my critics have suggested as my goal. Not only is that unrealistic, neither is it a goal. Can’t we strive for a balance the forefathers ignored? Many years ago I interviewed a county commissioner whose political career began when as a young dairy farmer he became a community organizer in an effort to create a favorable vote to channelize Hawk Creek and have it permanently reclassified as a “federal ditch.” He mistrusted my intent with the story and said more than once: “We don’t want to go back to those days of fighting mud and mosquitoes. This is a vast improvement over those days.”

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This area of Chippewa County is called the “black desert” because it is basically exposed black dirt between plow down and protective crop canopy … sometimes eight months between the two.

A few years back CREP helped restore some acres that should have never been plowed, yet was only a “drop in the bucket.” Adding to my concern is that we simply aren’t taking adequate care of what we have altered. We see very little use of cover crops, and one young farmer told me that it is likely a waste of money because by the time harvest is completed there isn’t enough growing season to establish a cover crop. My argument is that there are forward thinking farmers who are successfully using cover crops to protect their soils. No till is another tactic, and perhaps the least expensive of all is to simply quit fall tillage. Meanwhile we see ample evidence of soils blowing and washing away without any real protection for the eight months between harvest and adequate crop canopy. Stubborn wetlands resist efficient drainage, and farmers insist on planting corn, soybeans and sugarbeets both there and on the hillside blowouts that glow a bright tan where the topsoil has eroded away.

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An image from a foggy sunrise on a nearby WMA where the bluestem florishes.

Multiple studies have shown that today’s agriculture has basically ruined our lakes and rivers in the southern half of the state. The lakes around Albert Lea, for example, are so polluted that I’ve never seen a boat in nearly 35 years of travel over the I-35 bridge. a trip I’ve made numerous times. Former community celebrations honoring the two lakes there have reportedly died because those lakes are lifeless from the runoff of industrialized farm chemicals. This is a familiar story in many of the sparse, undrained lakes below I-94 and into northern Iowa and more recently into the Eastern Dakotas.

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My most recent horizon image shows a frozen wetland surrounded by prairie. Many farmers in Big Stone County have retained their wetlands.

My apologies for climbing upon the soapbox since this began as a statement about a severe lack of unblemished prairie horizons and became a conservation policy rant. Yet, it is what it is. In reality, the prairie no longer exists. If you look hard enough, and long enough, you’ll find remnants of restored native grasslands, and even fewer rare instances of actual virgin prairie. As long as we maintain and adhere to the policies promoted by the USDA’s Farm Bill, industrialized agriculture will remain king. And you will know that by looking across the landscape searching for a human-free horizon … unless you’re blessed by heavy fog.