Talking Pictures


Peterson Township, Clay County, Iowa, April

Peterson Township, Clay County, Iowa, April

It was early April 1991, cold and windy, and Carol and I were living briefly in Peterson, Iowa, while I photographed, interviewed, and did research for what became Reflecting a Prairie Town: A Year in Peterson, my second book.

On that day I hauled my panorama camera out north of town onto the great flats where I could best see the low clouds galloping out of the northwest like bison before a prairie fire. These weren’t storm clouds—notice they are thin stratus clouds—and it was cold enough that snow was more a possibility than rain. I remember standing and holding the tripod against the tearing wind, watching the clouds race at me, light, then dark, transforming second by second,  The great Norse gods were at play that day, and all we humans could do was hunker down in our tiny houses on the plain.


Dora Bruguier, Eagle Butte, South Dakota

Dora Bruguier at Senior Center, Eagle Butte, South Dakota 3/00

Back in March of 2000, I took some 18 Winona State University journalism and photography students for a spring break week at the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It was a spectacular week that included a genuine blizzard, livestock work, many fine stories and photographs, plus wonderful hospitality among native and Anglo people alike. This productive week helped several students get good jobs after graduation.

For my part, I spent much of the week making portraits of women and men at the senior center in Eagle Butte, hearing stories, enjoying the company of people who have the time to listen, laugh, and contemplate something of the nature of life.

And so here is Dora Bruguier, everybody’s grandmother, Lakota tribal member, in all her dignity, wearing what look to be moccasins from Lands End. It was mid-March, and shamrocks hang in the background. Everybody is Irish on St. Paddy’s Day.


Winona, Minnesota, Icon

Sugar Loaf, Winona, Minnesota, FebruaryWinona, Minnesota’s icon is Sugar Loaf, a rocky prominence in the Mississippi bluffs left standing when quarrying stopped many years ago. It is not a natural feature, but nonetheless a rather fetching one that now appears on local tourism brochures, corporate logos and promotions of all kinds.

Since it is usually depicted in raking sunlight or framed in colorful fall trees, I wanted something different when I photographed for my part of the local Minnesota Marine Art Museum’s “Portrait and Place” show in 2011. What does it look like from other angles, I wondered? In less flattering light? Early on I zeroed in on a good view of Sugar Loaf and the edge of town energy from the Fleet Farm parking lot along U.S. 14/61, and then watched for the right moment, the right light. 

It came on a foggy, zero-degree February day with the parking lot glazed in road salt. With the truck heater left on full, I raised my tripod to about eight feet above the pavement, ducked in to warm up, set up the camera, made my exposures, warmed my hands, and finished, cold to the bone.

The traffic island created a counterpoint to the pinnacle of Sugar Loaf, and for me at least, the whole of it created a sense of a workaday Minnesota river town beginning to think about spring.


Black Angus

Angus, Sioux County, Nebraska

Photographers who photograph the world at large all know that their photographs are found, not made, and that when “out in the field,” they must rely on quantities of luck and happenstance.

So it was one day in July of 1999 when wife Carol and I left Harrison, Nebraska, southbound on Nebraska highway 29. At maybe 55 mph and trolling for photographs, I turned my head left just in time to see these angus cattle in this lovely arrangement close to the road. I figured they’d certainly move by the time we got turned around, drove back, and set up the tripod, but I had to try. During our quick U-turn and cautious drive back, Carol pulled out the camera, changed lenses and took a light reading for me.

I’ve worked with cattle and know a bit about their behavior, so I figured these animals might be a bit spooky. Thus as we approached them, I slowed the truck to about pasture pickup speed, imagining them possibly familiar with slow moving vehicles. I pulled up quietly on the shoulder, got out, keeping the truck between me and them, quickly set up the tripod and photographed them across the hood.

To my delight, they paid scant attention to me, only a couple watching me with idle interest, and I was able to make several exposures before one got to its feet and wandered off, spoiling this grand composition.

Having this photograph in the bag (or more accurately, in the film cooler) and anticipating printing it, was a joy better than winning the lottery.

A note about the grass: This, like all my photographs, is a “straight” print. I dodged and burned in the darkroom to balance tones, etc., but there is no trickery here. 1999 was a drought year in western Nebraska and much of the Plains, and by July the landscape was white with dried prairie grass.

This image is from East of West, West of East: The Great Plains, a growing body of work that is to be a traveling exhibit and book.



Oma's Homage

Oma's Door, Peterson, Iowa 4/91

In 1990 and 1991, I spent a year in a tiny town in northwest Iowa--Peterson, Iowa--to write and photograph a book about small towns and their place in the landscape.

Why Peterson? Many in my family had lived here, though I grew up elsewhere. Population at the time was about 200.

Early on in my work, I spotted Oma Rohrbaugh's front door, and marveled at the wonderful scenes pasted into its panels. I asked her if I might photograph it, and she agreed, though she was mystified by my interest. I brought my cameras by one April day, and I asked her where the pictures had come from and why she had made the aesthetic effort to paste them thereon.

"Why, I had a bank calendar, and the year was over, and I loved the pictures. It looked like they'd fit on the door, so I pasted them on. It's an old door and needed some decorating," she told me.

I love the effect, and I love the photograph. Beyond merely sprucing up her sagging door, she created a fine homage to the landscapes of American iconography: a New England barn, western mountains in snow, a sunny beach someplace.

Oma died some years ago, and her tiny house on the south edge of Peterson, Iowa, was torn down long ago, and I suspect I have most of the evidence that this place ever existed.

Reflecting a Prairie Town: A Year in Peterson is the book that came from my lovely year of research, writing and photographing here. Published by the University of Iowa Press in 1994, the book combines image and word in what I think are particularly effective ways.

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