Iowa Reflections

Red Barn

Red Barn

These are two images from a short visit to northeast Iowa and nearby Minnesota in June 2010. To the east of this area, the gently rolling plain gives way to steeper more wooded hills and valleys leading down to the Mississippi River. To the west, the woodlots become scarcer as the land rises imperceptibly to a higher and flatter plain ideal for wind farms layered over the corn and soybean fields. It is a place of contradictions.

The land is open, weeds grow along the gravel roads, and many places are more than an hour’s drive from any town of 10,000 or more. Yet the landscape is being industrialized. Wind turbines, power lines and communication towers sprout like weeds; large scale hog operations miles away reveal themselves when the wind blows from their direction; and except for the Amish, modern chemical-intensive no-till farming has largely replaced more traditional methods. Some townspeople believe cancer rates are rising, and they suspect the presence of farm chemicals in their drinking water.

Many of the original settlers in the area were Norwegian, and that remains a dominant cultural feature today. There is an emphasis on utility more than design, lending an unpretentious plain-ness to the environment, culture and social life, and perhaps camouflaging the changes underway.

For example, until recently, diversity meant the comfortable divisions between Lutheran and Catholic, Norwegian and those of other European heritage, or even between individual families. Although a stranger, I looked like I belonged, and was always greeted with a smile and a wave. However, in recent years there has been an influx of Hispanic laborers who have taken jobs in meatpacking and the few other factories. An undercurrent of the modern anti-immigrant fear of the “other” spreads invisibly like the poison from the fields into the groundwater. Natural beauty, the past and the future collide.

Slideshow with more images from this series.

Communications Tower in cornfield

Cornfield Communications - 2010

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20 Comments on “Iowa Reflections

  1. Very interesting to see these images of the Midwest US ….so different from the tropical heat colors of St. Croix..Yet they still maintain the mystery and story that is signature to your work. “Cornfield Communications” seems to be a lighting bolt charge where the old collides with the new….nice work Don!

  2. Hey thanks Robin! The colors were different up there. It was rainy much of the time so I got a real education in the many shades of grey! Funny thing, when I started working with the images, there was a lot of color mixed in with those greys.

  3. The first image reminds me of my home around here. The farmers are just finishing loading the hay bales large rounds and small bales. The second image remind me of the twin tower project of light. The light blue wave great color. Beam me up Scottie. I wonder how close to being able to be beamed up we are? Just wondering.

  4. I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Minnesota (lived there for a short time and cycled across it) and your first image brought back many memories and reminded me of why I left. Although I enjoyed my time there, the winters were brutal!

    The second shot almost looks like a solarised photo of a bunsen burner. I absolutly love discordant colour.

  5. Beautiful, eery landscape. I think your images captured quite well your perspective of the area.

    Sorry to hear that this region is being poisoned by chemicals and the same kind of “fear of the other” that has infected our state of Arizona. If you want to read more, journalist Greg Palast has an excellent post on this problem at his blog called, Behind the Arizona Immigration Law: GOP Game to Swipe the November Election.

    Again, very painterly work.

  6. Hi Starla. That first image is sort of quintessential mid-west farmland. That area was my home for many years. We seem to beam a lot else around, so maybe “beam me up” soon! Thanks!

  7. An Australian in Minnesota, huh razzbuffnik?! After 49 of those brutal Minnesota winters, I’m sure you can understand why we sailed south to the Caribbean! The second image was a communications tower standing alone in a cornfield on a misty rainy day, with the top of the tower nearly disappearing into the mists. This is another one where size would help reveal some of the detail of the corn and the structure of the tower near the bottom of the “flame”. Thanks!!

  8. Hi Melinda. I hesitated for a long time before posting these images along with my thoughts. Happy talk often seems more welcome. It is interesting to return to a place where one has roots and see it with new eyes.
    Thanks for the Greg Palast suggestion; I will look it up. Beyond politics, some of the populist fear may be driven by an intuitive understanding that resources are limited, and people don’t want to share their slice of a shrinking pie. Thansk so much for your comments!

  9. Don, your mid-west images are spectacular! Very different from the Caribbean, but just was wonderful.

    I’ve never been to that part of the US and have always wanted to go. I feel like I’ve seen a little of it now through your wonderful photos.

    Sad about the farming with all the chemicals. I have no doubt that there will be health problems for years to come from that.

  10. Thank you, Carol!
    Yes it is a very different place than the Caribbean — different landscape, different people, different culture. It is sad about the chemicals, and not immediately apparent when one looks out across the verdant fields. There is so little left that is untouched, but even so in many ways the countryside is beautiful.

  11. Wozer, Don! These images and those in the slide show seem to be out of this world spectacular. Each one of them seems steeped also in the complicated narrative that you write about. A blend of word and image that I’ve not seen you do before? Anyway, out of respect, I bow from the waist– which at my age is getting harder and harder.

  12. Thank you Pat!! I’ve tried to resist writing too much about my images, but in this case they seemed to hold together as a series that deserved some words to go along. It was a rewarding exercise. Thanks again!

  13. a stunning collection, don, that if it were on exhibit in a gallery or museum would fit so many current themes, particularly about the landscape changes over time with ‘progress’ and what comes of it from different angles. you have captured something that is visual and narrative and original in its perspective/color/strokes that is important and beautifully depicted, bravo!

  14. Thanks tipota! Those themes you speak of interest me, and I feel I am just beginning to learn how to speak about them without preaching.

  15. Very strong images. I enjoyed the slide show, especially the photo of the blue pipes emitting some wonderfully colorful toxic effluent. The single tree in the field of green drew me in as well. Its sad to see the loss of the family farm as a way of life, where a sense of community was important. I spent several years in Alberta and Saskatchewan in the same type of area (and winters), so I know how resistant to change the “locals” can be. The bottom photo brings to mind the havoc wreaked on our lives by the big corn growers in the form of high fructose corn syrup, ridiculous bio fuels, and corn oil.
    Wonderful thought provoking images and very refreshing after being at a show where the pretty images were selling like hot cakes. Nothing against pretty images…actually, I’m off to do one now!
    Thanks for sharing such great images and words.

  16. Yes Catherine, nothing wrong with pretty pictures — we all like a happy ending, and we deserve beauty in our lives! It’s understandable why people prefer a pretty picture, a happy picture, to hang in their homes, and why art fairs are sometimes a little one dimensional in their focus on the decorative. In my own shows I’ve found that the images with a twist of whimsy or beautiful color sell best.
    However, it does bother me when the beautiful and decorative crowds out or even denies the reality of the scenes being rendered. For example, some artists here paint historical scenes from the sugar plantation days. Beautifully rendered with strong colorful brushstrokes and clear gestures, these paintings are a joy to behold. Yet the scene of harvesting cane, for example, is romanitcized by those colors, gestures and brushtrokes, denying the reality that those people were slaves and denying the brutality of the labor. But the fact they are romantic and decorative is the very reason people buy these paintings to hang in their homes. Seems a case where pretty and happy are dishonest.

  17. I am glad I didn’t miss this epic post. That slide show was great. Your image technique works great in midwest farm country. I can tell by looking at these photos that you have spent a good portion of your life in the Midwest. an outsider probably wouldn’t have captured it the same way.

    I think the midwestern countryside is changing somewhat for the better. With the advent of the internet it isn’t such an isolated place in the universe. The new diversity doesn’t hurt either. For all the right wing bluster i think most midwesterners like their new neighbors from the south. At least it’s easier to find a good burrito in the middle of corn country these days.

  18. Hi photos4u2c! Glad you checked in… thanks!! Yes, 49 winters up there. Some of the changes in farm country are for the better, like those you mention. On the other hand, some, such as the industrialization of the farmland, are not. It’s a mixed bag of natural beauty, friendly people and big changes beneath the surface.

  19. Great photos, very surreal.
    I spent many years in semi-rural Michigan. Everything you talk about is true for there as well.
    One thing that confounds me is how many of the people who are born and raised there, stay there. It almost seems like the Midwest is living in a sort of time warp; there’s a lot of ignorance about the “outside world.” It was something I really hated.

  20. Another recovering midwesterner, huh, Jala? It’s beautiful there, but surreal in it’s own simple way. A part of the modern world but almost in denial of that fact. The willful rejection of metropolitan urbanity among small town midwesterners is mirrored in some ways by an equally willful ignorance among many city-dwellers of rural life in flyover country. Interesting how we can divide ourselves.

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