Terry Evans scrutinizes one of her photographs with a magnifying glass. She is looking for buried visual information, something she may have missed when she took the picture from a plane flying about 700 feet above the North Dakota prairie. "See that white church," she says. "It's a well-tended place. The facade and the roof are in excellent condition. But I don't find a parking lot and the access road looks overgrown. So I wonder what the real story is."
"Happening at my Feet"
"In Place of Prairie," an exhibition of 48 large-format photographs that Evans made from 1990 to the present, is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago until April 11, 1999. Though all of Evans' images are impressive, the exhibition jumbles together photographs that were made at different times in various places. Evans' books present her work in a more logical, compelling way.
Evans has spent her life in the American Midwest, looking at the land, photographing it and revealing its secrets. Her uncommonly rich, uncommonly challenging photographs have been presented in three books and many exhibitions.
Her subject is the fabled American prairie. The French word "prairie," which translates as "field" or "meadow," is what French explorers called the Illinois grasslands when they first saw them in the late 17th century. Nowadays we apply this term to North America's heartland, which has a dry climate, hot summers, periodic droughts, steady wind and few trees.
Before settlement, the prairie was covered with drought-adapted grasses and flowering plants. Huge herds of bison grazed there. Settlers plowed up these lands and created a great agricultural industry, sparing less than one tenth of one percent of the original prairie.
Conservationists have mobilized in an effort to protect many natural sites, but the movement to create prairie preserves and restore damaged prairies is so young that most of its founders are still active.
Evans first photographed the prairie in 1978 as a favor to friends who were doing survey work. Then she became aware of the prairie's amazing abundance and variety -- an acre of prairie may support as many as 350 different species.
"The realization came," Evans writes, "that I could stand in one spot and look at the ground for at least an hour and still not see everything happening at my feet. I started to photograph the prairie ground."
In these images, Evans pointed the camera straight down to record the textures, rhythms and subdued colors of the plants. Grasses become three-dimensional scribbles -- we feel the wind move through them. Though dense with information, Evans' ground photographs are very readable. "I look for pattern, a formal structure," she states. "I want the formal aspects of a photograph to be as important as the subject."
Evans presents nature offhandedly. There is none of the rhapsody here that we find in Ansel Adams. She seems close in spirit to Eliot Porter, but takes no special interest in his work and claims that her influences come from art history -- early Renaissance Italian painting, late Medieval art, Chinese scroll painting and Abstract Expressionism.
Evans was able to spend enough time in the prairies to understand all of the nuances of the vegetation. She lived just ten minutes away from the privately held Fent's Prairie, whose owners gave her a key to the gate. About one hour's drive from her home was the Konza Prairie Research Natural Area, an 8,616-acre preserve managed by Kansas State University.
One day, Evans took a picture of new spring grass, old grass, and sage, "in a sort of spiral configuration." Later, as she examined her photograph, the sage "looked like stars" to her and the grass "like a galaxy." Suddenly, she realized that "the sky was a part of the prairie too." This led to a body of photographs, taken at ground level, that show the prairie against the sky -- and sometimes just the sky. We see the rhythmic, treeless topography that pioneers likened to the waves of the sea, the cloud-filled sky and the countless shadows formed as the sun's light moves across the land.
Some photographs show dramatic interactions between land and sky. In Storm Lifting near Concordia, Kansas, October 1980, we see flat topography, bands of vegetation and a long sliver of light on the horizon beneath the dying storm -- a prairie Rothko. In the photographs of prairie fires, smoke seemingly dissolves the horizon line to unify the land and the sky.
Eventually, Evans began to take pictures from aircraft. She did this in the morning and late afternoon so the sun would cast shadows that revealed prairie topography. Since these photographs have no trees or structures in them, we cannot judge scale and her images become beautiful abstractions. Evans published her early prairie photographs in Prairie: Images of Land and Sky (1986).
"How We Live on the Prairie"
After eight years of work in undisturbed Kansas prairies, Evans had photographed the land "to the limits of her vision." She concluded that "the inhabited prairie was part of the body of prairie and that I could not understand prairie if I didn't look at the whole of it." She started looking for evidence of abuse by farmers and the military, but ended up reading the stories of the land "from the facts of the landscape."
Her images of the inhabited prairie are "neither a critique of land use nor a statement about the irony of its beauty," she writes. "The photographs are not about abstract visual design; they are about specific places. They show marks that contain contradictions and mysteries that raise questions about how we live on the prairie."
As a human presence enters Evans' work, her photographs become narrative and personal. She takes pictures of her family farm and the Kansas landscape where she lived for many years. In aerial views, she demonstrates how people have tried -- and generally failed -- to impose their will upon nature. Solomon River Oxbow, August 2, 1990 shows a river overflowing the straight channel that a farmer cut for it and resuming its original meandering course through his fields.
The aerials depict patterns of human habitation -- roads, lines of trees planted as windbreaks, terraced plowing, a gravel pit, an abandoned missile launching pad, and even a military bombing target in the shape of the Star of David. Some images tell stories. In one, we see faint traces of an Indian settlement that is thought to have existed between AD 1000 and 1500. The land is now a farm whose owners have found spear points and arrowheads. In Assaria Cemetery, Saline County, January 20, 1992, a dark looping calligraphic line across a plowed field is seen under magnification to be deer tracks with each hoof print clearly visible. These images -- all of them black and white -- were published in The Inhabited Prairie (1998).
World's Largest TNT Factory
In 1994, Evans' husband found a job in Chicago and the family moved there. She soon discovered the abandoned Joliet Army Arsenal, about 40 miles southwest of Chicago, where the U.S. Army had manufactured armaments since World War Two. Joliet became the world's largest TNT factory.
When the Army set up the Joliet Arsenal in 1940, it purchased 150 small farms -- 19,000 acres of land in total -- demolished the farm buildings, fenced the site, and located the factory such that nearby civilians would not be harmed if it exploded. The Army also laid 200 miles of narrow-gauge railroad track to serve the site and constructed numerous bunkers with ten-foot-thick concrete walls to store the finished product.
In 1993, the Army closed the Joliet Arsenal and it was declared excess federal land. A citizens' committee developed a multi-use plan for the site comprising a veterans' cemetery, two industrial parks, a landfill, and -- most exciting of all -- a 15,080-acre Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie park to be operated by the U.S. National Forest Service. (Midewin, pronounced mi-DAY-win, is a Potawotami Indian word that means healing society.)
By 2006, the National Forest Service expects to transform Midewin into a prairie-type grassland by removing most traces of past occupation, planting native prairie species and eliminating non-native plants. When the work is done, Midewin will support a bison herd. The park will be open to the public.
As Evans tells it, the "mysteries of the abandoned human stories combined with nature's changes drew me repeatedly to the former arsenal. I wanted to explore the land extensively with my camera." She photographed this derelict place for about two years, making images of abandoned military buildings; the patch of undisturbed prairie; a prehistoric Indian burial mound; "TNT Ditch," where dynamite was made; and a fieldstone fence said to have been built in the 1860s by Confederate prisoners of war. These photographs, which recall those of Wright Morris, were published in Disarming the Prairie (1998).
The artist is currently photographing the mixed-grass prairie -- a wide band from Saskatchewan southward through the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and parts of Texas. Some of this work hangs at the Art Institute and I have seen images in the studio. As always, Evans looks closely at the land, sees marks and patterns that few others notice, and creates images that show the limitless mystery and beauty of the prairie.
VICTOR M. CASSIDY is an art journalist based in Chicago..