This eerie scene of a child’s grave in the Whitman cemetery in Hooker county has haunted me for some time in my photographic efforts. The young girl died in the first years of the twentieth century as her family struggled to establish a life in the rugged Sandhills, a life tied to the growing town of Whitman. Now, Whitman is nearly extinct, and the monument to the child has only the trio of nearby cedars for companionship on the High Plains.
In Whitman, Nebraska, a lonely cemetery sits atop a hill overlooking town and the vast, rolling expanse of the treeless Sand Hills.
I have spent time at both the Montrose Catholic Church, as well as Ray Semroska’s home; that said, I found the presence of Ray’s headstone in the cemetery of the church, accompanied by a small visage of the Virgin, both eerie and telling. The Semroskas are perhaps 5 percent of the entire plots, and on their hill, those overlook the long, high prairie as its winds and time pass the tiny sets of gravestones–and the traditions they represent–quietly by.
Like many photographers in the past 80 years, I defined my early career in landscapes through the imitation of Ansel Adams; though unoriginal, my photographs were informed and sculpted in their content by careful observation of Adams’ use of tone, surfaces and layers. Twenty years later, I still make careful use of Adams’ and Archers’ zone theories (though not as applicable for digital) when I compose, and some of Adams’ compositional techniques, albeit subconsciously.
Thus, on a winter day at sunset in Harrison, I walked south of town on the highway and found the same warm light glinting off the headstones of the Harrison cemetery, much the way that light did for Adams as he passed the town of Hernandez, New Mexico, so many years ago.
The Montrose Catholic Church has no heat and no plumbing, but it is a focal gathering point for many of the ranch families in the back country of Sioux County. Time passes slowly here, and the long exposure of this image shows how the lonely structure and tiny cemetery have been silent observers to the myriad changes in the attending and adapting ranching families of the area for over 140 years.