Heartland: The Plains and the Prairie
By David Plowden
“My first photographs of the heartland were made in April 1964. … Since then, I have spent months, whole seasons, nearly fifty years, what seems like a lifetime photographing and rephotographing this landscape.”
Thus David Plowden summarizes the quest culminating in his Heartland: The Plains and the Prairie (W.W. Norton, 2013), a gorgeous set of black-and-white photos that, except for the grain elevators, are nearly all sky.
From Funk’s Grove, Ill., to Regan, N.D., to Perico, Texas, the gravel roads, the open fields, and the railroad tracks, all stretching to infinity, gesture toward an illimitable sense of place. Plowden notes that this region is not America’s playground; those who live here work here, and at times the ceaseless wind may drive them nearly mad. But as both he and no less an aesthete than Walt Whitman vigorously argue, the great plains “last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, and precede all the rest, and make North America’s characteristic landscape.”
Nationalism insists on loving by comparison: “We’re better.” Yet the vista of a snow-spotted plowed field in Kankakee County, Ill., doesn’t invite comparison. It is beautiful on its own terms. Three grain bins stand in a tilled field, across a barbed-wire fence next to a graveled two-wheel track stretching upward to the horizon in Stanley County, S.D. One photo of a grove-encircled grain elevator in Iowa (almost) contains more trees than all the other photos put together.
Yes, the landscapes are stark. The cold is bitter, and between blizzards and tornadoes, the weather is brutal. Several photos feature long-abandoned dwellings. But I, at least, love this land, this inland sea where the white whales are grain elevators and the waves are amber. Fifty years isn’t nearly enough time to drink it in with a lens.
By Edward Burtynsky
Even the most reluctant reactionaries will be convinced by Edward Burtynsky’s work that God does abstract art. Indeed, the whole subject of this photography book is so pervasive, so huge, that it is almost an abstraction in itself. Water. It’s not only the title, but also the subject and the star of every photo, usually by its presence but also in its palpable absence from the brutal desertscapes caressed by Burtynsky’s camera. From an unrecognizable tailings pond at a Florida phosphorus mine to centuries-old terraced rice fields on a Chinese mountainside to the drip irrigation of California’s Imperial Valley and the abstract patterning of of the Aragon countryside, the camera’s eye “doth the world so gloriously behold” (as Shakespeare once put it) that readers are left with an unshakable conviction: Human beings couldn’t invent this world. They only find it and tweak it.
Beachgoers seen from the air with their colorful umbrellas remind us of the circular center-pivot fields of the Texas Panhandle, while the industrial contours of a Chinese dam look like socialist realism that’s sprung a leak. Indeed, it seems somehow fitting that a book this ambitious comes from Steidl, a European boutique publisher—and that it’s already out of print, even though it was released in August 2013.
The book contains two essays. They deal not only with the photographs, but also with the problem of water shortage in the 21st century. The afterword by Russell Lord seems to be caught in a dialectical bind between its affirmation of historic human water management and its profound negation of the same thing as currently practiced. Yet if the problem is that billions of people lack clean water, then the solution is not less human involvement, but better cultivation of existing resources.
The photos raise profound questions; Water is a feast not just for the eyes, but the mind.
Empire: A Journey to the Remote Edges of the British Empire
By Jon Tonks
You don’t know what isolated is until you have lived with 258 other people on an island 1,750 miles from the nearest inhabited land. Tristan da Cunha lies in the South Atlantic west of Cape Town, South Africa. It has no airstrip, and the only way to get there is five days’ sail on the mail boat. Looking for a spouse is simple. Each age bracket has only four or five girls and two or three guys. And if you do get married, you’ll have to build a new house, because every dwelling on the island is already occupied. But the natives do like immigrants; they boost the gene pool. So if a quiet retirement sounds good, you may want to board the RMS St. Helena in Cape Town and make the trip.
Ascension Island is farther north and much harder to live on. Though it has an airstrip, no one is allowed “right of abode.” Only those with a contracted job—mostly military personnel, weather station operators, and their families—may live there. Even natives of the island must leave on reaching adulthood unless they manage to get a working contract. On the other hand, the island’s social pond is much bigger than Tristan’s: It is home to nearly 900 people in its 34 square miles.
Jon Tonks’ photographs of these isolated countries, and two other British-held Atlantic islands like them, are fascinating. The people are, of course, no different from other British citizens. They dress like us and look like us and live in homes like ours in what could be a very small town, Anywhere, U.S.A. But nonetheless, their world is circumscribed by water in a way that mainlanders’ isn’t.
Empire: A Journey to the Remote Edges of the British Empire (Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2013) provides a fascinating look through a window into other worlds, parallel to ours, but very far away.