Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The last picture, in three parts

          I didn’t want to go out into the cold and ice and snow and so fretted over it with altogether too much energy. It was the last night of 2012 and I was tired. My wife had been working crazy long hours so we’d barely seen each other for several weeks, and here we were snug and warm while outside winter honed its icy blades, the roads snowpacked and treacherous. I had a good book to read and hot coffee, but also unfinished business. And that business allowed no rest.

“Go,” my wife said. 

“I hate bars,” I replied.

“Go anyway.”

“Want to go with me?”


So much for moral support. I reluctantly got dressed, donned my coat and slipped the camera over my shoulder. 

“See you next year,” I said, and went into the night.


For the past year I’d photographed the men, women and children of our town performing the diverse tasks that are at their core the building blocks of rural America. The project, called The Way We Worked after the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibit of the same name, was sponsored by a grant from the Kansas Humanities Council. Our historical society was one of 16 partner sites to the traveling exhibit, and the first time the Smithsonian had partnered with small towns. While the other sites focused on their particular histories as related to work or culture (mining, agriculture, black populations, etc.), ours was a photographic record of how we worked in Blue Rapids. We called it a snapshot of a single year and thought of it in terms of the historical record. It was also a lot more time-consuming than I’d envisioned, and much more rewarding.

Along the way I’d spent hundreds of hours with farmers, ranchers, convenience store workers, clerks, grocers, city workers, lifeguards, contractors, shopkeepers, retailers, postal employees, medical professionals, welders, musicians, explosives experts, county fair workers and volunteers, even a cat and a dog. I was there for funerals and the baptism of twins. I was allowed unrestricted access into the working lives of my friends, my neighbors and complete strangers. Everywhere I went my camera went. And all the time I brooded over the final shot, the wrap, when I would lay down my camera and begin working on the exhibit that would follow.

By mid-December I had a few ideas, several of which fell through. That left the nursing home or the bars. The former would be fairly boring barring any disastrous emergency (“hours of mind-numbing boredom punctuated by heart-pounding terror” was how it was explained); the latter filled with drunks, almost-drunks, getting-there-drunks, too-loud music and drunken revelry. But the celebratory aspect appealed to me. While my fellow partiers toasted the conclusion of one year and the birth of another, I’d be toasting the same for my project. 

I’m not much of a bar person, though. Throughout the project I liked to quip that I’d spent more time in churches and bars than at any period in my life. Without fail I was asked which I preferred. Bars, I said. Their brand of spirits suited me best. 


You never know what you’re going to get: that’s the first rule of photography.

The second is to go with the flow. Be flexible. Be realistic. Be prepared. and above all, be ready.

The counter is crowded, the music blaring. The bartender is working alone, fast and furious. I’m positioned near the end of the counter so I can frame her against the wall of bottles, mirrors, signs and assorted bling plus the digital wall clock hanging above the cash register.

Halfway through my second beer it comes together as if choreographed. The clock shifts to 11:59 p.m., the bartender turns and glances at the clock, I hammer the shutter, eight or nine frames faster than a person can blink. And know, without the slightest doubt, that I nailed the shot. 

“Happy New Year,” I toast, draining my beer with the rest of them. What I meant was, “To 2012: one of the best years of my life.”

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Roc Day--a fiber celebration (extravaganza!)

 Alex Laughlin, shoe painter

 Shin-hee Chin

 Judy Scott, handmade jewelry

 Vernita Peeks, knitting tips and tricks

 Corsetry by Jen Horn

 Corsetry by Jen Horn

 Needle felting

 Fabric artistry by Shin-hee Chin

 German paper stars by Judy Hiatt

 Jay Rich, textile artist

Monday, January 07, 2013

Like a particular Way We Worked Project photo? Voting now open.

Here's a thought: someone suggested a People's Choice photo for the Way We Worked Project exhibit. Let's try this--if you have a favorite, leave a description of it in the comments section. On Jan. 10 we'll do a final tally and the image with the most votes will become part of the official exhibit.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Another form of witness

        How we appear to ourselves is rarely how others perceive us. This is doubly so when trying to infiltrate any form of gathering of “locals,” a weasely term that at once distances the bulk of attendees from a smaller fraction of those relegated to outsider status. Freelance writers and reporters are familiar with the sensation of standing out from the crowd, of sly sideways glances and sometimes intense scrutiny, and a recent meeting at a small town in Republic County was no exception. Fortunately, my presence was trumped by a pair of documentary reporters from the BBC’s Washington, D.C. branch and another reporter from Atlanta, so I was merely a sideshow.

The funny thing was how easily I recognized them. It wasn’t just the microphones and video recorders that set them apart—their attire and demeanor were painfully obvious. In the case of the BBC reporters, one wore a tan leather jacket more suitable for the fashion district and the other pointy loafers  of European styling. I had them pegged as Brits long before we were introduced. The Atlanta reporter was polite, soft-spoken and black, and with an accent of foreign origin. 

My own dress certainly wasn’t a match for the farmers and cattlemen but at least I had the benefit of home turf, more or less. It reminded me, though, of Wil Hylton, a freelance reporter I’d met at a Kansas Farmers Union convention in Great Bend two years ago. He, too, stood out, with a floppy felt hat and an intensity that was almost disconcerting, and clothing that seemed a little too upscale.

We were both there to cover a talk by Frank and Deborah Popper of Buffalo Commons fame. Hylton told me he was writing an article for Harper’s magazine, my favorite periodical, so naturally I eagerly awaited each new edition for his take on the meeting. It was a long time coming, but this summer it appeared with the somewhat extreme title of “Broken Heartland: the looming collapse of agriculture on the Great Plains.” 

Typical Eastern elitist exaggeration, I sniffed, followed by an increasing appreciation for his thoughts. He opens with a quote from Thomas Hart Benton on the futility of human effort on the Great Plains and proceeds to the Poppers’ suggestion that prairie residents embrace their own decline by converting their lands into a sort of wilderness. According to Hylton, Kansas alone lost more than 6,000 towns since the Great Depression, and from a recent excursion across half the state my wife and I saw a dozen communities that were little more than ghost-towns-in-the-making, as I called them. Most were holding on with everything they had but the conclusion was inevitable.

His figure, while startling, corresponds to similar data from K-State’s Chapman Center for Rural Studies, whose interns are working on a multi-year research initiative called “Lost Kansas Communities.” The goal is to document towns of less than 500 residents, to unearth historical records and, when possible, to interview former or current residents. 

It also corresponds to my own research as we charted the course of my wife’s great-grandmother’s covered wagon exodus from Blue Rapids to Arkansas. Historical topographic maps dating to the early 1900s detailed dozens of small communities whose very names have been forgotten. For all the animosity raised toward the Poppers when they introduced their findings, depopulation isn’t a theory—it’s a fact.

It came to me in a sort of revelation that I’d witnessed the opposite effect in burgeoning metro areas. During my childhood Albuquerque spread across the Rio Grande Valley and onto the West Mesa, and later as an adult I watched the Denver metropolitan area fuse into one traffic-choked gauntlet stretching from Castle Rock to Fort Collins. Here it’s emptying out except for the larger cities, with most towns showing population declines since the Dust Bowl if not long before.

Last week I spoke to the owner of a preservation company who said she was having difficulty acquiring grants for a small town in Marion County. “I keep getting told, ‘Why bother? The town won’t be there in ten years,” she said.

The town’s population zenith was in 1920, when it boasted 2,455 residents. A decade later it plunged almost 40 percent, and since then has had something of a rollercoaster with influxes and exoduses. In every case, though, gains were offset by greater losses; the city now has 1,210 people. In my small segment of north-central Kansas, that constitutes a major, if not the major, population center for the entire county.

I’m not wringing my hands at the news, however. After seeing firsthand the debilitating effects of unmanageable growth, the depopulating, collapsing Great Plains is where I belong, and anyway reflect a sort of mirrored image of my own declining years. I’d rather be here at the great emptying than at the unconstrained filling.

The third annual Roc Day fiber celebration!

Coming soon...