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.
Thursday night last week was one of those magical evenings when, as Ansel Adams was fond of saying, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” I had been to Lost Springs a number of times to photographically explore, but as storms rolled across east-central Wyoming near evening, I came back with the expectation of something…special. Chance, indeed: A train rolled through town, allowing life in the shot, and as a gift, the storm gave me a lightning bolt.
The showcase image for PlainSky, Nebraskans, “High Plains Train” could never be shot again, since in all my years, I’ve never seen a storm that looked the same over the winter Nebraska Sandhills.
This photograph deserves much of the credit for the entire PlainSky, Nebraskans project. It is the image that most defines the project’s commentary on the present and future of the High Plains.
Shot in Dawes County in 2010, I had walked through more than a half mile of high plains grass along the rails as I searched for a possible combination of graffiti, the distant Pine Ridge, and a farm or ranch to sit in the window created by the rails and coal cars. I was searching for a statement about the impending encroachment of industrialization and urbanization on the culture and landscape of western Nebraska, and when I found this car, “change” emblazoned on its flanks, a distant windmill and tractor against the Pine Ridge, and blackbirds on the fence, I began to compose. And as I worked to create the shot, the blackbirds departed and completed the scene.
The Sand Hills (or, as Nebraskans do it, the Sandhills) are a challenging, subtle place to photograph; few trees or geographic landmarks exist to help define a sense of scale in any photo. That may be why I’m so drawn to the area: It’s a challenge. But, I think it is more the immense expanse of the sky, the clarity of vision and the openness of the landscape that simply tantalizes me with the question, “What if?”
My next solo exhibition, “PlainSky, Nebraskans,” opens at the Minden Opera House Gallery on April 16, 2013, and will feature three 40-inch-wide panoramic images indicative of both the project as a whole, and the essence of western Nebraska. The above image, “High Plains Train, Grant County,” is one of them (I think). Continue reading
This image sums up one facet of my PlainSky, Nebraskans, project marvelously: “Crossing road, 2 tracks.” In a sentence, few other descriptions could be more accurate in expressing the gist of living in western Nebraska; lives of those here are punctuated by the rails. Sleep is broken by the distant wail of the engine’s horn, or the low song of the rolling wheels, as it carries across the still, silent prairie air on a January night, and even as one’s slumber is disturbed, he or she is refreshed by the lullaby of the sounds so mated to modern life on the prairie.
Often, travelers in the Sand Hills have only the land and trains to keep them company as they drive the long expanse of Highway 2 from Alliance to Broken Bow. As I passed Mullen, Nebraska, I found comfort in a Burlington Northern coal train’s partnership with my journey for a few moments, and I made this image to remind me of that shared trip.
On a Sunday morning in June, I drove miles on a gravel road paralleling the train rails in northwest Nebraska, looking for another image in my “PlainSky, Nebraskans” project. I knew I wanted to use the windows created at the bottom of the coal cars to frame the issues of farming, landscape and social change in the area, but I had no idea I would receive the gift this patch of graffiti would offer; and at the moment of the shot, two red-winged blackbirds chose to land on the fence at the right of the frame.
The first show opens in April 2013.