A hot day and High Plains light greeted me when I rolled into this small town of fewer than 100 people, a village accessible only by dirt roads. As is my practice, I drove the town slowly, looking for images, and soaking in the feeling of the place. The playground held my attention for quite a time.
A technique I have long used for finding photographs is moving before stopping. An area, object or moment captures my imagination as I pass, and I then proceed to work at an image (Harry Callahan walked to do this; I tend to drive, due to the massive expanses of the West). In the case of this image, the billboard first captured my attention, and after working the image for more than an hour, I finally settled on this composition, and waited for a train to pass.
Sometimes the most interesting or evocative photographic opportunities require us to be intimately familiar with a place and its changes. This was just such a time, as I found an ancient bristlecone pine uprooted and discarded among the debris from a recent avalanche.
It’s Halloween. Happy Halloween.
I was visiting my close friend George Nobechi in Tucson, Arizona, and he took me to Bisbee, Arizona. He said I’d like it.
I’m honored to see “10 Things I Learned from the PlainSky, Nebraskans” have an 8-page spread in the Fall 2016 edition of the Tri-State Cattle Journal. I’ve had several requests from readers that I re-feature the post so that they can share it on social media, so here it is:
Originally Published on July 16, 2012
I began the PlainSky, Nebraskans project three years ago. My daughter was two; I was finishing my master’s thesis; we had lived in our present home less than a year. But I felt called to the project, energized by it, focused by the prospect of documenting a way of life with which I was familiar, but knew others weren’t. And time was running out.
So here I sit, the project well in hand, the first show opening in nine months, and a companion limited-edition book. So what? That’s not why I did this; I was looking for lessons, not praise. I was searching for cultural memories and ways in which to preserve them, mainly through photographs. Still, what have I learned?
And then, Rachel Larson’s 25 Things list crossed my path. She codified everything I had seen from the honest, hardworking Nebraskans I have been photographing; and I realized–not surprisingly–the project needed a set of lessons. So Rachel, here’s to you; you’ve cemented ranch culture for those who have lived it, as well as those who have never known it. My list can’t compare, but here it is, anyway.
10 Lessons for All of Us from PlainSky, Nebraskans
- Trust, and be trustworthy. I am reminded of a previous post about Joe Whiteaker, owner of Whiteaker’s Clothing in Harrison, who told a broke cowboy to wear a new pair of boots out the door without paying for them. Joe trusted the cowboy to pay for them when he could, and the cowboy knew he couldn’t break that gift of trust Joe had invested. In this era of defaulted loans, scrutinizing credit agencies and circular squabbles, it’s worth it to remember that the Whiteaker’s way of doing business was once the norm. Once, we trusted each other. The PlainSky, Nebraskans still do.
- Be a good neighbor and good citizen. People in Harrison, Arthur, Crawford and other towns across the western part of Nebraska are keenly aware of one thing: All they have is each other. Without everyone helping everyone, no questions asked, no refusals, there is no neighborhood, no community and no survival. Helping a neighbor means down the road, you’ll have someone you, too, can ask for help. What’s more, you’ll feel good about yourself and the place in which you live.
- Look people in the eye, and have a firm handshake. Why do so many people avoid eye contact, or brush off that simplest sign of good intentions, the handshake? Because we’ve grown accustomed to living lives of solitude and mistrust. Let people know you mean what you say, and you’re glad to see them, in these two easy steps. I’ve never met anyone in western Nebraska who did otherwise.
- Respect your upbringing. In western Nebraska, every family I’ve worked with has told story after story about family; some were funny, some morose, but all important to what the family had become. These people don’t try to escape their blood, they accept that no one is perfect. All parents can do is try their best, and someday, each child will have to do the same.
- Cherish simplicity. In brief, unplug. Sit on a horse. Watch a sunrise. Smell the rain. Build a memory. It’s funny how the world moves slower once you do this.
- Say thanks. Everyone deserves a simple, heartfelt “thank you” for help rendered, no matter how small. Time and time again, I have heard these people (who are of few words by nature) say this–and mean it.
- Eat a meal together. Without the television. Or smartphones. Just good, simple food (lots of it), good family and friends, and lots of stories and smiles.
- Break a good sweat. Whether it’s for your own benefit or someone else, there is a singular joy in hard physical work. At the end of it, you don’t just tell yourself you’ve been working; you feel it. Moreover, you look back at the job and say with pride, “I did that.”
- Tie one on. Hard physical work justifies the occasional raucous evening. Think of it as decompression.
- Live this moment. Every waking hour (and for western Nebraska ranching families, there are a lot in a day), we should remember that this moment won’t come again. The way the Herefords cluster in a draw of the land, or how the grass becomes molten gold in the late evening sun, or when the breeze rises just enough to cool your face on a hot summer afternoon. They’re all precious; don’t wish any of them away. Today is enough; live this moment.
Am I wealthier from the PlainSky, Nebraskans project? Not monetarily, no. But certainly spiritually. I, too, have learned to live this moment.
Every time I think my favorite places in the West are played out photographically, devoid of further inspiration for me, I go back and have to eat my words.
One of my best friends and I made a long photo journey to the northern Great Plains and Rocky Mountain foothills recently, looking for those elusive photographic treasures called “keepers.” On the way, we talked about innumerable things, but one of them was the Giant Thirst series, and how it continues to evolve. I channeled George’s wisdom regarding the wider world, and this image is a response.
We needed milk and eggs, but I never made it into the store.
I know, I know: I’ve been gone a while, again. Since the last post in June, I’ve been busy teaching at Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, and making a bevy of new images for my now-named project, “A Giant Thirst.” The project is inspired by an Edward Abbey quotation, given to me by a close friend and fellow photographer, Melinda Green Harvey (who should also be congratulated for being named to the 2016 Texas Photographic Society Members Only Exhibition).
In any case, I’m not going to spend any time explaining the image, per the Robert Adams verse I provided in my previous post; my hope is that the image speaks for itself.