Plainsky Nebraskans

“10 Things I Learned from the PlainSky, Nebraskans” in the Fall 2016 Tri-State Cattle Journal

Little Chicago: PlainSky Nebraskan No. 23, 24" x16" on Red River Polar Luster

Little Chicago, from the PlainSky, Nebraskans series

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.”
  9. Tie one on. Hard physical work justifies the occasional raucous evening. Think of it as decompression.
  10. 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.

After PlainSky, Nebraskans: Where From Here?

The Unknown Ahead: Fog and Trees

The Unknown Ahead: Fog and Trees

Well, the first “PlainSky, Nebraskans” show is hung-all 42 images. On the walls. Reception held. As moments go, it was fun. The next showing (20 images) opens April 16 at the Minden Opera House, with a gala reception on April 27 from 4:30-6:30.

Frankly, these are the toughest times for photographers. The great unknown looms, new projects await, veiled on the horizon. Where from here?

Happy Birthday, Nebraska: PlainSky, Nebraskans Opens Tonight.

Wall, Ellsworth, 2012

Wall, Ellsworth, 2012

Today is the birthday of my photographs. Not of their creation, but of their subject, Nebraska, and it is only fitting that I pay due homage to the focus of my photographic passion. “It’s fitting that today is Nebraska’s birthday, and your show celebrating Nebraska is opening tonight,” said Donna Thompson of the West Nebraska Arts Center.


The PlainSky, Nebraskans Show: The Complete Works No. 25

Man's Boots: PlainSky Nebraskans No. 25, 10.5" x 15.5" on Canson Infinity Arches Velin Rag

Man’s Boots: PlainSky Nebraskans No. 25, 10.5″ x 15.5″ on Canson Infinity Arches Velin Rag

The second of two pieces in the PlainSky Nebraskans show featuring boots, I was captivated by this man’s boots, the wagon wheel, pipe and dry, dead grass in the shadows. For me, it is a image about life expressed in textures.

The PlainSky, Nebraskans Show: The Complete Works No. 24

Maddie In Boots: PlainSky Nebraskans No. 24, 18" x 12" on Red River Arctic Polar Satin

Maddie In Boots: PlainSky Nebraskans No. 24, 18″ x 12″ on Red River Arctic Polar Satin

As evening drew to a close, Maddie Meidell, her sister Abby, and their cousin Angela were anxious to show their photos to my assistant Liz and me. Rushing out from the house, I chuckled at the realization of how ranch life permeates the girls’ existences, for while city folk would put on flip-flops or sneakers, the three girls pulled on boots in spite of their shorts. As I looked closer, I became enthralled with how the brown boots moved to the brown-and-turquoise, then on to what became my chosen focal point in the image, Maddie’s full-on turquoise boots with spurs peeking out from the forest of legs in front.

The PlainSky, Nebraskans Show: The Complete Works No. 22

Leif and Claire: PlainSky Nebraskans No. 22, 10.5" x 15.5" on Canson Infinity Velin Rag

Leif and Claire: PlainSky Nebraskans No. 22, 10.5″ x 15.5″ on Canson Infinity Velin Rag

Leif and Claire: An unposed, genuine photograph of the past and future of the American West. For many who know my images, this is their favorite image, if even for nothing more than its ability to provide a brief glimpse into the heart of the High Plains.

The PlainSky, Nebraskans Show: The Complete Works No. 21

Jay Em No. 1: PlainSky Nebraskans No. 21, 18" x 12" on Canson Infinity Velin Rag

Jay Em No. 1: PlainSky Nebraskans No. 21, 18″ x 12″ on Canson Infinity Velin Rag

No, despite being in a show called “PlainSky, Nebraskans,” this photograph was not made in the state. It’s a sister shot to “Ardmore,” an image that illustrates the alarming rate of depopulation that persists in much of the Great Plains, and while “Ardmore” is from South Dakota and just north of the Nebraska border, “Jay Em No. 1” is from just west of the state line into Wyoming, but suffered the same plight as Ardmore. It is now a ghost town, and while wandering the silent streets I found this image to alluring to resist with the bones of the trees in their withered organic forms against their ancestors wrought into an industrialized form, then utilized as the walls of a building that no longer hosts any life. The trees grasp skyward, the formal elements in the background of the photo in stark contrast, and reflected in the windows to the left are leaves that seem to taunt the barren branches below with false promises of bounty.

The PlainSky, Nebraskans Show: The Complete Works No. 20

Horses and Gathering Storm: PlainSky Nebraskans No. 20, 24" x 16" on Red River Polar Luster

Horses and Gathering Storm: PlainSky Nebraskans No. 20, 24″ x 16″ on Red River Polar Luster

I couldn’t resist the chance of making a black and white image of dark horses against the light colored Sandhills and a growing thunderstorm in the sky, the horses’ tails perfectly matched as the plains wind played with them.