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I grew up on a small farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  Some of my earliest memories are of time in the barn.  My dad had a very small dairy herd, 14 cows.  In winter, the body heat from the cows would keep the barn warm and moist, and I remember the smells—the breath of the cows, wet and sweet, the smell of the molasses in the ground feed, the dust from hay and straw, the acrid smell of silage, and the smell of fresh cow manure.  Above the cows was the hay mow—one of my jobs was to pull the bales out of the stacks and drop them through a hole in the floor so they could be fed to the cows.  In summer, I helped my day bring the hay in from the fields, always on the hottest day of the summer, or at least it seemed—we didn’t have an elevator, so the hay had to be heaved up into the mow, and stacked.  In addition to the big barn, the farm also had a pig house and two small chicken houses.

 

Iowa, December 2019

 

My dad sold his cows when I was 11, and the barn was never quite the same after that.  He raised steers for a few years, but there was no twice daily milking to be done—only feeding once a day.  He tore down the pig house and the chicken houses.   After a few years, he stopped raising steers, and the barn had no animals.   The barn had a cistern to capture rain water for the cows, but it developed cracks, and the water seeped into the back stable.  Eventually the water rotted the bottom of one of the tree sized girders that held up the barn, and the whole barn began to sag.  Plus the wood shingles on the roof rotted and the roof began to leak.  By the time I left the farm for graduate school, the barn was mostly empty, though for a few years he continued to make hay and sell it to some local neighbors who fed it to horses.   After he stopped making hay, he filled the barn with discarded furniture he brought home from the local college where he worked as a janitor.  However, there were still pigeons living in the barn, and everything got covered with layers of poop.

 

Illinois, December 2019

 

For years, I was embarrassed at how the barn had fallen into disrepair under our watch.  But it wasn’t just our barn that was in trouble—many other barns on surrounding farms were also failing.   I recall talking to an Iowa farmer, who noted that the increased mechanization had reduced the physical work required for haymaking, which had previously limited the size of his dairy herd.  In response he had added more milking cows, hoping to increase his income, but found that other farmers had done the same, resulting in a glut of milk and falling prices.

The increased mechanization of hay making—making large round bales weighing half a ton—or automated gathering and stacking systems for smaller bales—made the old style hay loft and hand stacking obsolete—it was too slow, required too much labor.  Which, in turn, meant that the old barns were outdated.  Newer barns were built to house lager groups of animals and facilitate mechanized feeding and manure removal.

 

The modern barn, Lancaster County, December 2019

 

Driving across the country in December through farm country, I paid attention to barns, photographing them through the windshield.  Almost everywhere, the old barns have fallen into disuse.  Many are unpainted, falling down, or have been completely demolished, and only isolated concrete silos remain where barns once stood.  Functioning farms have become larger, with new steel pole barns for storing hay, and large grain metal grain bins for feed.  Silage is stored in large trenches covered with white plastic and old tires.

 

Indiana, December 2019

 

In Lancaster County, where I grew up, there are quite a few barns that remain in good repair, for two reasons.  Amish farmers who still farm with horses still have small farms, and use the barns to store hay and house animals.  The barnyards there are still covered with manure in winter.  But non-Amish farm barns are either in complete disrepair, or have been “Martha Stutartized”—painted and decorated to look nice, but their spotless barnyards show they are obviously are not used for any farming function.

 

Look what they done to my barn, Lancaster County, December 2019

 

I suppose I should be grateful to the affluent property owners who have the money to put on new roofs and paint the old barns—they are preserving at least the look of the old landscape—but it also makes me a bit sad.  Barns were made to be functional, and whatever is inside the newly refurbished barns, it isn’t hay and cows.  Some have been converted into storage areas for businesses, some are used as party spaces (the barn wedding has become popular), but I suspect that most are just used for storage.  Particularly sad are the old barns stranded in the middle of suburban developments or industrial parks, where they seem as mournful as shipwrecks.  How did they veer so far off course as to wind up here?

I suppose what I resent the most isn’t the disappearance of the functioning barn so much as the end of small farming as a viable lifestyle.  It seems to me that both humans and animals have suffered with the industrialization of agriculture.  I recall my father knowing the personalities of each of his cows—some were gentle, others always kicked at the milking machine and my dad—they weren’t pets, but they were part of the family.  I can’t see the same kind of relationship between a farmer and his cows when the herd size is 2000, and he hires illegal migrants to do the milking.

Of course, my father also worked extremely hard, and for very little return on his effort.  Each year when my mother returned from the tax accountant, the farm showed a clear loss.  The only way to be a “real farmer”—that is, one that made a viable living from his farming—was to get big.  Two of my uncles decided to take that path, buying big tractors, building large chicken houses and pig houses, and both of them ended in bankruptcy.  Which is, unfortunately,  the usual way farmers end their careers…

In high school, I remember reading Authur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”—the title referred to suicide by automobile, when a salesman grew too old to compete.  The old barns, falling down or pimped out, stand as monuments to the end of the small farmer.  Individually and collectively, they stand as evidence of the death of the farmer.

 

Industrial Park and Barn, Lancaster County, December 2019

 

 

 

On the Road—Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois

The Van trip continues—my last blog post was from a hotel room in Rock Springs, Wyoming—a town full of empty hotel rooms, located between the national parks of Utah and Wyoming. The hotel we stayed at was cheap—a nice room for $45—with a special discount based on the fact that the building heat wasn’t working properly—we had a small electric space heater to keep the room warm.

 

Wyoming December 2019

The worry in Wyoming was the wind. Gusts up to 60 mph, warnings about blow over potential for high, light vehicles. Our van doesn’t do well in the wind, so we got off of I-80 and followed the lower, slower Route 30 through Medicine Bow.

 

 

Wyoming, December 2019

Out of Laramie, we decided to head south, into Colorado, to meet up with my old bicycle trip route from 1984, which began in Denver and headed into the high plains east of town. The road between Laramie and Fort Collins had a few patches of blowing snow, and a few cars and trucks in the ditch, but we made it through safely. Fort Collins and Greely were crazy—traffic—and we noticed that we were getting a pronounced wheel vibration—perhaps a thrown wheel balance weight—but perhaps warning of a tire failure—the tires were new in 2002. We stopped to have the tires checked in Fort Morgan, and decided to have them replaced at a Walmart there. The ride was much smoother after that.

 

 

Colorado, December 2019

 

Colorado, December 2019

After buying new tires and fretting about why we didn’t do that before the beginning of the trip, we realized that when we began this trip, we weren’t sure how the trip would go, and the possibility of needing to abandon ship along the way is something we discussed. When I first tried to start the van last summer, the van wouldn’t start—dead battery. I bought a new battery, still wouldn’t start, spun over without catching. I bought a can of starter fluid—and it started—drove it a quarter mile to the end of the driveway, then back to the house. The van was covered with decaying leaves and moss from years sitting idle. The windshield had a crack, but we weren’t sure it was worth replacing. In early November, we drove the van down the hill so it wouldn’t get snowed in at the farm. We weren’t sure the van would make it to Spokane, but it did—so we took it to the car wash and got the worst of the accumulated grime off the outside, and vacuumed most of the mouse poops out of the inside. The fan belt failure was a warning about how old this vehicle is—and how the rubber parts especially were aging.

 

 

Western Nebraska, December 2019

After the new tires were installed, we noticed that the van seemed to be running quite well. In Hastings, Nebraska we stopped for coffee at a Casey’s and met a man who seemed shocked to see the old van still on the road—he had been a dealer for them back in the 1980s—“we sold a ton of those rigs”—and told us that people were restoring the campers and selling them for a lot of money. Looking on the internet, I’m not so sure that there’s a real market for them—all the older units I can find are priced low—I think we’re still in the “junk” stage of collectability. Which is fine, as long as it runs…

 

Nebraska, December 2019                      Western Nebraska, December 2019

 

When I rode bicycle through eastern Colorado, Nebraska, and Iowa in the mid 1980s, the towns seemed to be emptying out, a process that seems to have continued. Most of the small towns are now filled with empty main streets, the exception being the county seats where there seems to be enough work to keep a viable community going. Even there, though, it seems that Walmart and Dollar General have replaced the local department stores, and most of the businesses are small and fragile—Mexican restaurants, antique stores (almost always closed, please call this cell number), real estate offices, insurance salesmen…

 

Bloomfield, Iowa, December 2019

The grain elevators are bigger—huge steel tanks, ground piles, always next to a rail line. The smaller elevators are abandoned and decaying. Many of them have already been demolished, but a few ghosts remain.

 

Illinois, December 2019

The small towns in Iowa seemed to be doing better than the places further west, maybe because there seems to be more small scale manufacturing scattered among the farms.

We were stopped by snow in central Illinois—got a room at a motel with a whirlpool. It’s good to be in a warm, dry place when the snow is falling…

Taking a camping trip in December might not be most people’s idea of fun… But I’ve managed to cross the country several times in winter without much trouble. This time looks like it might be different.

Idaho, December 2019

We have an old beater van camper, a 1985 Chevy, with over 180,000 miles on it, and decided to give it a shot, trying to make the East Coast for Christmas. From Spokane, after a small front went through, it looked like there would be a period of calm dry weather extending out into the week ahead. So we decided to go for it.

So far, the trip has been both very fun and very frustrating. On the fun side, a couple days in Idaho with beautiful weather, open landscapes, good traveling.

Idaho, December 2019

On the frustrating side, at the start of the trip, we had a belt that squealed. We call the van a pig, partly because of it’s color, partly because it wallows down the road, and partly because it uses so much gas. So our joke was that the van was squealing like a stuck pig.

Just outside of Idaho falls, trying to make a run for the continental divide, Rachel suddenly noted that the power steering was no longer working. The belt had failed. We turned around, and made it a few miles back towards town before the engine overheated. We pulled into a safe pull out, and called a “mobile mechanic”.

The mechanic was great–stopped by after dark to look at the problem–“a real shitshow” was his assessment–one belt sliced, the other two twisted–and recommended replacing all the belts. He went to town, came out the next morning with the new belts–arrived just as the snow did. It took him about an hour to change the belts, and another hour for us to go back to Idaho falls to get more glychol for the engine. By the time we headed east again, the roads were snow covered and slick.

Fun, Fun, Fun

It took us 3 hours to drive through the snow storm–fortunately our smart phones showed us the edge of the snow just to the east of us–and eventually we drove out of the mess.

 

Wyoming, December 2019

We made it to Rock Springs and a hotel room–on I-70–but are currently worried about wind advisories between us and Laramie. But waiting means snow–so I think we are pressing on.

In Alaska, we used to joke that “having an adventure” meant really doing something stupid so that it became life threatening.  So far, so good–hope our luck continues.

Winona, WA, July 23, 2017

 

Winona, November 22, 2019

Wooden crib elevator destroyed by fire on October 22, 2019.  Elevator contained 110,000 bushels of grain, cause of fire suspected to be an electrical issue.

Wooden crib elevators are disappearing at a rate of a couple a year in the Palouse.

 

Indeed.  From the New Yorker.  Precisely my response to the article appearing on the same page.

My response is perhaps the same as one I gave, more than 20 years ago, to a dean of the school of “Engineering and Science” at a university where I applied for a faculty job, who’s son was studying engineering, a chemist who wondered why “anyone would want to be an engineer.”  My response was shock–this is the dean of the college of engineering–and it took me a while to formulate a response.  “Some people feel the need to be useful”, I said.  Which is an inspired choice, I think.  I didn’t get the job.

A friend, an 89 year old woman, lost a son to cancer this week. I never met the man, but her grief is intense. She is a very private woman, and has refused visitors during this time, even though she is too old and frail to travel to be with her family gathering around the body.

Pond and Rain, 2005

When she told of us of his rapid decline and likely death, two weeks ago, my wife and I sat in stunned silence. This friend is one of the most composed and elegant people I have ever met, but she has seen death and madness before: her husband’s family fled the holocaust in Germany, her husband died of a heart attack at 48, and her mother was murdered in her bed, a crime that remains unsolved decades later. And now the death of her son. Words fail.

View from my kitchen window, 2008

A few months ago, this friend led a Sunday morning service at the small church we sporadically attend, and she read a poem, attributed to Meister Eckhart (1260-1328)

It is a lie
any talk of god
that does not
comfort
you

Thinking about that poem, I started looking at my photographs of the Alaskan Landscape in a different way.

Summit Lake

For some years, I have been consciously thinking about numinous landscapes, places where spirits exist, a term first suggested to me by Barry Lopez. In the landscape, I have sometimes felt myself to be in the presence of something that opens up and reveals itself to me, sharing secrets. I have tried to respond to this by saying thanks to the place, to what spirit I do not know, as I put my camera away.

Snow, Murphy Dome

Now, looking at my photographs, some of them seem to contain some ineffable presence that comforts. Perhaps it is no more profound than the headset offered by the dentist doing a root canal—a way of looking away, putting your mind in another place during a painful moment—but I’d like to think it’s something more. More than eye candy—perhaps as strong as morphine—something to soothe the pain.

Tasinia River, 2005

Robert Adams speaks of the purpose of art as “consolation”—a term very much associated with comforting those in times of death.

 

Tanana River, 1994

Of course, visual images have been part of religious worship for a long time. In my home, I have a Greek Ikon I found at an estate sale a few years ago—a picture of the Madonna and child—something that doesn’t hold much meaning for me. (Every time I look at it, I think of the Dylan line “my grandma prays to pictures that are pasted on a board”.) So perhaps the idea that some photographs can invoke thoughts of the divine is not so absurd.

In the Jewish tradition, a family sits in mourning for a week after a death, and receives visitors. These visitors are advised to be silent, to bring small gifts of food. Since our friend is refusing visitors, I’m trying to honor the tradition by sending her photographs by e-mail, one a day, each morning. I call it “sitting digital Shiva”. I can only hope it is a comfort.

Climate Strike, Spokane, Sept 20, 2019

 

Went to the Climate Strike event held in Spokane today–saw some signs worth commenting on–

 

Climate Strike, Spokane, Sept 20, 2019

 

Here are people on the front lines of what needs to be done–

 

Climate Strike, Spokane, Sept 20, 2019

 

The carbon fee (and a big one) and a per capita dividend is the only idea that I think works to properly price carbon–tax it when it comes out of the ground so it gets priced into everything, and give people a carbon quota–and a dividend based on that quota.  If you use more than your quota, you pay a stiff tax, if you use less than your quota, it’s like a guaranteed income.  But the “carbon fee” has to be high enough to change behavior–where we live, how we move around, how we heat and cool our homes.

 

Climate Strike, Spokane, Sept 20, 2019

 

And I love this sign–“don’t distract us with straws and light bulbs”–no kidding.  We have to start thinking about SUVs, cars, and central air conditioners.  Changing light bulbs is a very tiny step in the right direction, but it doesn’t get us anywhere close.  And straws are way down in the pixie dust.  And I love her T-shirt–“Make coffee, not war.”

 

 

“In order to make pictures that no one had made before, they [photographers] have to be attentive and imaginative, qualities partly assigned and partly chosen, but in any case ones that leave them vulnerable.  When Robert Frank put down his camera after photographing The Americans he could not so readily escape the sadness of the world as he recorded as could we when we closed the book.”

Robert Adams,  in Why People Photograph, Page 17.

 

“I’ve been wondering about Dostoyevsky. How can a man write so badly, so unbelievably badly, and make you feel so deeply?”

― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

 

While living in Philadelphia in the early 1980s, I made an appointment to go look at photographs in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  I learned that they had a complete set of prints from “The Americans”, and asked to see them.  When the boxes were brought out, I discovered a set of neutral toned  black and white prints that looked for all the world almost exactly like the images printed in the book—a little bigger—but there didn’t seem to be anything in the prints that I couldn’t learn from looking at the book.   I later learned that Frank had many orders for those prints, which he never seemed to get around to making.  Eventually he hired another printer to make sets to meet these orders.  I have no way of confirming this—but I’m sure the prints I saw at the Philadelphia Museum were made by someone else.

In 1994, I went to see the Robert Frank exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in DC with a friend.  I recall the walls were painted something very dark, maybe black.  The whole gallery felt like a funeral.  But the prints were unlike the ones I saw at the Philadelphia—these were cream colored, printed dark—moody.  I felt like these must have been printed by Frank himself—they were far from perfect prints, but they were raw and full of emotion.   After going through the whole show in silence, I realized that I wanted to discuss one of the images with my friend—we went back to look it again.  I realized that we were speaking in whispers, and that everyone else in the gallery was equally hushed.

 

Robert Frank, Hoover Dam, 1955

The image I wanted to discuss was titled “Hoover Dam, 1995”, which showed a post card rack at a souvenir stand, with  three cards:  the Grand Canyon on top, the Hoover Dam in the middle, and a mushroom cloud on the bottom.  What was evident in the photograph—but not in any of the reproductions I had seen before—was that someone—probably Frank himself—had arranged the postcards in the rack for maximum effect.  The top two were the only post cards in their slots, and the mushroom cloud was two identical cards in front of something else, as could be seen from the edges that didn’t match in the cards behind.  Diane Arbus noted that some photographers try to arrange what’s in front of the camera, while she tried to arrange herself to get the picture.  Which is not to say that one way of making pictures is better than the other.  Robert Frank obviously knew what he wanted, and he got the picture.

I’ve admired the work of Robert Frank, but, as implied by the quote from Robert Adams, sadness followed him–the death of his daughter Andrea in 1974, and the mental illness of and subsequent death of his son Pablo in 1994.  For much of his later life, Robert Frank lived as a recluse. And who could blame him.  But I’m grateful for the pictures he left us.  Especially the Hoover Dam picture.  What a summary of the history of the Western Landscape–pure genius.

Freeman, Spokane County, September 2012

When I moved to Spokane in 2012, I realized almost immediately that I was living on the edge of wheat country, and there were grain elevators I could photograph.  I began almost immediately—I have a handful of photographs I made while waiting for my credit check to run on my first apartment in Spokane on my first day living here.

 

Near Lind, Adams County, July 2018

 

In 2017, I arranged to show photographs at the Whitman County Library in Colfax, and decided that I was going to try to photograph every public grain elevator I could find in Whitman county.  At that point, I realized that the 8×10 view camera I was using was just too slow for the job—and a friend had passed on to me a tilt shift lens that I adapted to fit the front of my Sony digital camera—so I had the ability to use the digital camera with the perspective corrections of a view camera.  By the end of August, when the show went up, I had photographed 62 sites in Whitman County.

 

Alston, Douglas County, March 2019

 

Once I was “done” with Whitman County, I started working documenting places closer to home, in Spokane county—then west to Lincoln and Adams Counties in the summer of 2018.  I discovered that many of the elevators in those counties were part of the new Highline Grain Growers association, and I decided to try to photograph all of them—a total of 52 sites, including some in Douglas, Grant, Stevens, Okanogan, and Chelan Counties.

 

Bruce, Adams County, March 2019

From there, I decided to complete my survey of every grain elevator I could find in the Washington State, or at least those east of the Cascades.  I found a list “Public Grain Warehouses and Grain Dealers” published by the State of Washington, but realized that this list is incomplete—several large co-ops are not listed in this document, and the list also does not include abandoned elevators.

 

Fairfield, Spokane County, March 31, 2017

I could cover a lot of the territory on day trips from Spokane, but this summer I did two overnight trips to get some of the more distant elevators, including one trip to Walla Walla County, and a second trip to the Yakima Valley.  Those trips required a bit of planning—mapping out possible sites with the lists I had on hand, and then trying to find those elevators on Google Earth.

 

North Prosser, Benton County, August 2019

 

I’ve reached a point where I’ve located and photographed most of the elevators I’ve identified.  Out of 317 sites identified, I’m missing photographs of about a dozen.  I think I’m done looking for new elevators in Washington State.

I’m sure the project isn’t done, though. I’ve been documenting the destruction of some of the abandoned elevators, and I’m sure I’ll stumble across a few new ones.  But the active search is completed.

 

Basin City, Franklin County, August 2019

I’m kind of sorry I’m done with the project—I think my favorite part of the project was driving down country roads I’d have no other reason to travel on.  And finding an abandoned elevator—that was the payoff.

As a farm boy myself, what strikes me after looking at all these grain elevators is the relentless drive towards bigger farms, bigger fields, and bigger grain elevators.  A century ago, farmers carried their grain in sacks to the elevator in horse drawn wagons–so having an elevator within a few miles of the field was essential.  Now, tractor trailer trucks carry bulk grain up to 40 miles to massive rail or river terminals.  The small, old elevators are being abandoned, but they were built to last, and so they persist in the landscape, monuments to a slower time.

The recent PBS show on Garry Winogrand got me thinking about my own very brief attempts at street photography, mostly while living in Philadelphia.

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Walter Mondale Rally, Philadelphia, September 1984

Garry Winogrand spent his entire adult life walking the streets with a couple Leicas around his neck, shooting hundreds of thousands of negatives. I was a poor graduate student, and my camera was a tiny Rollie 35 that I bought for $25 because someone had stripped the stop pin off the lens focus, and then put the lens back on the wrong set of threads. I think I got it back together right, but I had to preselect the focus, and my photos often are out of focus in the foreground. And I didn’t shoot that much film—a few dozen rolls over a few years.

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Walter Mondale Rally, Philadelphia, September 1984

I learned that a great time to photograph was during events—like the victory parade for the 76ers, or the annual Mummers Day parade. I learned that the audience was often at least as interesting as the event. There were also political rallies, but those had a more solemn tone.

3-482-3-2 Penn Football136

Penn Football Game, 1984

On July 4, 1985, the Beach Boys came to Philadelphia after Nancy Reagan said they weren’t welcomed on the mall in DC. There must have been a million people there, the biggest crowd I’d ever seen. After dark, they put up eight million dollars worth of fireworks.

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Beach Boys Concert, Philadelphia, July 4, 1985

So most of these photographs are 35 years old—most of the people in them are approaching retirement. And what strikes me about them is what isn’t there—no cell phones, no ear buds. Everyone is present and paying attention.

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Outside Live Aid, Philadelphia, 1985

So, I ain’t Garry Winogrand, don’t presume to be—but these photos seem to be aging well…