(The essay to follow is the introduction to the book Grace: Photographs of Rural America that I published in 2000.)
There is something plain about America that can be experienced most clearly in rural places. It can be heard in unpretentious speech, seen in unadorned buildings and felt in wide-open spaces. I have tried to photograph this humble quality in various places throughout the United States, but most often on the high plains of Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and in Knox County, Ohio, where I live.
I made the first photographs in this series in 1990, but the actual beginning probably occurred earlier, in 1987, when I returned with my family from living in Italy to see America with fresh eyes. What I saw was that America is still young – after a mere 200 years or so – and that rural America, in many ways, is still the frontier. I saw an aesthetic quite different from what I had seen in Europe: a beauty that was commonplace, austere, utilitarian, hopeful and yet temporary. Rural America seemed built for the moment, from materials that hardly last a lifetime. Entire towns are disposable and now are slowly melting back to the earth like last year’s sunflowers.
There is a palpable melancholy in much of rural America, a sense of premature loss that may explain why so many of these photographs deal with abandonment. But there is also hope, which springs from the resilience of the land and its spiritual power in the lives of people. This is what I mean by “grace” in the title of this book. Grace is a word with many shades of meaning, and many of those seem appropriate to rural places: a condition of being favored; a dispensation; a beneficent virtue; mercy; forgiveness; and strength to endure trial. By grace I also mean to describe the aesthetic response many people have that binds them to the land despite difficult odds -- a condition that contributes to the heartache experienced by many farm families forced to leave farming, as so many have over the course of the twentieth century. Also, I hope the act of making these photographs has its own grace, in the sense of conferring honor or dignity, showing favor and giving pleasure.
It is possible in some parts of western Kansas to pull off to the side of the road -- as I have many times to make photographs -- turn off the engine and experience an almost perfect silence. No singing birds or clattering tractors, no shouts of children, no trucks whining in the distance. At moments like this the silence seems to congeal around me, more a presence than an absence, solid and full. There are complex reasons for this silence, reasons of history, geography, biology, religion, economics and weather. Reasons that help to explain, for instance, why the population of many of these counties dropped in the 1990's to levels below that of the 1890's when Frederick Jackson Turner declared the passing of the American frontier. This is not a simple silence.
I have chosen to make these photographs of rural America in a style appropriate to their subject -- a plain style. I have tried to present my subjects directly and without artifice or irony. It is the subject that matters to me, not artful strategies of representation. If there is art here, it is the art of clarity and selection. Like the silence, these pictures of plain things are themselves plain... but not simple.
(Photographs from this series are available in various sizes as both gelatin silver prints and digital ink jet print.)
Link to Rural America Gallery