Since 1978, all of my work is connected by an abiding interest in and love for prairie. This interest began more than forty years ago when I photographed the Fent prairie, an 80 acre virgin prairie near Salina, Kansas, where I lived. I explored Fent and other prairies for the next eight years, which introduced me to the wondrous balance of an undisturbed ecosystem, and has informed all of my work to date. In Ancient Prairies, I’m visiting prairie remnants once again. In late May, I went back to the Fent prairie to photograph its intricate botanical complexity after having photographed the effects of fracking in North Dakota and petcoke pollution in Southeast Chicago, which both showed human disregard for land and its people. I’m deeply disturbed by our seeming inability to confront the current and impending disasters of our intensive fossil fuel overuse and the climate change our lives are provoking. This work is about remembering the wisdom and beauty of intact prairies. It is about SEEING them. These prairies would not exist without human care, and Ancient Prairies serves as a tribute to the kinship between humans and nature.


These photographs are not my stories, rather they are the stories of activists on the Southeast Side of Chicago, stories of resistance to corporate control of the landscape, stories of change and the awakening of a community to its own power and self- determination about what happens for its inhabitants. The portraits are of activists that I’ve come to know as they fight in various ways through the Coalition to Ban Petcoke and the Green Economic Industrial Corridor committee of the Southeast Environmental Task Force. These portraits do not include all the activists; there are more and their numbers are growing. The aerial photographs are about the polluting industrial landscape, especially the Koch Industries owned KCBX petcoke storage site along the Calumet River, and the British Petroleum refinery at Whiting, Indiana, where petcoke is produced from the waste from crude oil shipped from the Alberta tar sands. And there is a photograph of Big Marsh representing the many marshes in the Calumet region

This has been a two year journey as I have watched the activists delve into legal issues about regulation of petcoke storage, dust monitoring of particulate matter, political involvement in the tenth ward campaign for alderman, which resulted in the election of Sue Garza, who speaks out to ban petcoke, a transformation of power. Now after success with getting BP to quit shipping petcoke to the Koch owned site, the activists are beginning to envision a green industrial corridor in their landscape. There are many hurdles ahead, not least is the lack of money and the lack of conventional political power, but they will persist and they will alter their landscape in ways not yet known.

I said that these photographs are not my story, but that is not true. In some ways, I guess all the photographs I make are my story even if they are not about my story.  During the two years since I began visiting the Southeast Side, I have joined the Ban Petcoke group, marched in protests, campaigned for alderwoman, and I have learned as a firsthand witness that climate change is caused by capitalism which creates environmental and social injustice. I am not a local member of this community with its own deep history on the Southeast Side, but in another way, I am a member and we are all members in community as we work to understand the changes we must make to live into the uncertain future together.

What interests me most is the relationship between people and their local land and landscape. How to photograph these connections is my most satisfying challenge, so I was delighted when the Amon Carter Museum of Art, Ft. Worth, Texas commissioned me to photograph the Trinity River and the people who use it.The project was conceived in relation to an exhibition the museum is hosting of the paintings and drawings of mid- 19th C. painter, George Caleb Bingham. I began the project in early July 2013 and completed it in early May 2014 after making five trips to Ft. Worth that varied from two to five days each trip. 

Influenced by the work of George Caleb Bingham, my project work is in part a response to his work, though it also has other substantial influences. Because Bingham frequently painted Missouri River scenes, the museum wanted to make a local connection by inviting an artist to make images of their own Ft. Worth Trinity River and the people who use it. I bought several books about Bingham and his work. I looked at his paintings of people fishing, dancing on large rafts, listening and chatting in groups at political rallies. Bingham paid a great deal of attention to seated posture, stance and gesture. He painted people in relationship to each other celebrating on rafts. He painted in the exquisite hours of light. He often sketched individual figures.

So, I went to the Trinity River with his work in mind. I found a very different landscape than the scenic Missouri River of the mid-19th Century. The Trinity in Ft. Worth is a highly engineered river that is channeled for flood control. My heart sank when I first saw it. How could I make beautiful pictures there? I found a different kind of beauty. The people of Ft. Worth are attracted to the river and come there for play and relaxation in spite of fierce heat and drought. They fish the channeled river, they swim in inner tubes, they attend concerts and festivals on the river banks, they picnic, they run and bicycle and walk the many paths alongside the river. On July 4, 2013, my first day at the Trinity River, 50,000 people were expected there for July 4 festivities. There was not a tree in sight, the temperature was 98F, the sun was blazing, but the shores of the river were packed at the site of the celebration with everyone comfortable and relaxed and enjoying each other. I was impressed with this spirit of community and connection to home landscape.

A few months before I went to Ft. Worth for that July 4 celebration, I’d seen an exhibition of the paintings of Philip Pearlstein who often paints in his studio standing at his easel with his models seated in various ways on the floor thus giving him a slightly aerial perspective. Additionally, he introduces various props to add complexity to the visual situation. Because I’ve done a lot of aerial photography, I was struck by the glorious possibilities of actually making intimate aerial views. I wanted to try that perspective myself. I thought about it a lot, but forgot it as soon as I got to that river celebration, and then the opportunity came as I walked across a low footbridge by a picnic area. On subsequent trips, I looked for other ways to explore the aerial view. I stood on a picnic table or stood above seated people fishing. I’m interested in the formal possibilities of pattern and color and shape relationships while also showing human connection and relationships among the persons pictured. I’m interested in creating a narrative quality, stories from the aerial perspective.

Meet Me at the Trinity: Photographs by Terry Evans
Amon Carter Museum of Art
Ft. Worth, Texas
August 30, 2014-January 25, 2015

I never intended to photograph the prairie. For years I had photographed people and assumed that anything I needed to learn could come from being in and observing human relationships. When some friends asked me to photograph some survey work they were doing on a nearby prairie, I agreed out of friendship, not out of interest in the prairie. One day on the prairie, while my friends worked, I wandered around looking, and suddenly I began to see the ground. The realization came 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.

Then I began to learn the flowers and the grasses, with names like poems, silverleaf scurfpea, catclaw sensitive brier, nodding lady’s tresses, green antelopehorn, rayless thelesperma, mugwort wormwood. I felt embarrassed when I came across one whose name I’d forgotten or hadn’t yet learned; it was like slighting a friend. Earlier on the prairie, the plains Indians had respectfully learned as much as possible about a plant in order to deserve to call it by name and to use it for food, medicinal, or ritualistic purposes.

I began to see the difference between prairies and adjacent wheat fields. The prairie is a polyculture of perennial plants, while the wheat field is a monoculture of annuals. The prairie expresses a cyclical or spiral system of growth based on diversity and self-renewal, while the wheat field expresses a linear system of growth based on uniformity and leading to exhaustion. The prairie, unlike the shallow-rooted wheat field, has roots that often extend twenty-five feet into the earth, holding the soil firm. Of the entire biomass of the prairie, only 15 percent is visible above ground; the other 85 percent lies below the surface. I was awed by this fact as I observed the tremendous diversity and complexity of grasses and forbs visible at my feet. The rich variety of texture and color and line was stimulating but chaotic. I found it impossible to discern any visual order or pattern of organization as I observed the ground, but I was convinced that a pattern must be there. I believed that if I only looked long enough and hard enough, I would eventually be able to see the pattern and thus to understand the prairie. 

Whenever I was on the prairie, I experienced a kind of presence I had not felt anywhere else. It mystified me. Was the prairie holy? I came across some clues in these words by Thomas Merton: “The more a tree is like itself, the more it is like Him. If it tried to be like something else, which it was never intended to be, it would be less like God and therefore it would give him less glory. No two created beings are exactly alike and their individuality is no imperfection. On the contrary, the perfection of each created thing is not merely in its conformity to an abstract type, but in its own individual identity with itself.” The prairie was simply being what it was meant to be, and in being it was being holy.

I learned that in Greek and Hebrew, wind is the same word as spirit and breath, and I began to understand something else about the nature of the holy because I could see the effects of the wind but not the wind itself. I noticed how the wind changed the colors of the grasses as it wove them together, and moved them in rhythms of line, and I saw the tangle of winter prairie grass making spare calligraphy in the wind.

I began to see many spirals on the prairie, which emphasized for me the cyclical system of nature. William Irwin Thompson says that the ego is a line and the soul is a circle “but the archetypal image of the resolution of the line and circle is the spiral, for the spiral is the basic image of dynamic growth…The spiral expresses movement that includes as it unfolds.” The bristles of the porcupine grass become spiral springs and as the plant matures and dries, the humidity change causes the tension of the spring to expand and contract, and as this motion occurs, the spiral swirl and the blossoms of the blue wild indigo and the nodding lady’s tresses form spiral configurations around their stalk, as the sequence conforms to the mathematical Fibonacci series. Wild gourd and wild bean vines spiral across the ground, and the blossoms of the morning glory spiral forth as they unfold.

One day in April I took a picture of some sage coming through the grass, and the plants were in a sort of spiral configuration of sage, old straw grass, and new grass. As I looked at the photographic image later, the sage looked like stars and the grass like a galaxy, and suddenly I realized that the sky was a part of the prairie too. I began to point my lens at the sky with the dawning awareness “as above, so below.” When I photographed the prairie from a plane at about 1,000 feet, I was amazed at how similar the macro and the micro patterns were.

Gradually, I was learning about the form of the prairie, and as I learned about the form, I was being initiated into the mysteries of form in art and life. I began to understand that sacred and symbolic knowledge, knowledge that goes beyond the world of appearances, is transmitted through form and structure.

My photographs of the ground displayed a flat planar structure, unlike landscape images based on one-point perspective, the lenslike system of drawing developed around the time of the Renaissance. I began to understand that pre-Renaissance art (such as Egyptian hieroglyphics, Chinese calligraphic drawings, Persian miniatures, Greek icon paintings, European cave paintings, and the Native American Petroglyphs) that had used flat overall nonlinear, nonlens configurations was able to carry more symbolism about the experience of reality than lenslike expressions. This was true partly because the form itself expressed a spatial awareness that went beyond the world of appearances.

The sixteenth-century German artist, Albrecht Dürer, surely believed the same thing, as seen in his renderings of plants. Although Dürer was partly responsible for the device of linear perspective, he was not limited to its use. As seen in his circular astrological maps and mandala embroidery patterns, Dürer recognized that his questions about the nature of the universe had broader answers than those defined by any particular perceptual device. He was perhaps, also looking for the interrelationship in nature which he could not see, but which he suspected were there. Dürer would surely have enjoyed playing with the lens perceptions of a camera today.

As I looked at the forbs and grasses, continually searching for information about pattern and form, I believe that I had accidentally entered into a relationship with the prairie, considerably less developed than but similar to the relationship expressed by the plains Indians long before me in their daily life and in their rock art. In paying careful attention to the plants around them, they were living daily in two orders of reality – one of appearances and one beyond appearances. Their petroglyphs, in their structure and form, were maps of their spiritual universe revealing dimensions beyond the physical, arrived at through focus on the physical. Barney Mitchell, Navaho, says, “The greatest sacred thing is knowing the order and structure of things.”

The prairie has been bringing up many questions for me about the nature of form in visual expression, the shape of space, the nature of the sacred, agriculture, the significance of learning the plants, and more. The prairie expressed metaphors for human community about living with diversity and deep roots and a sense of place. Sometimes I seem to be coming full circle, but the circle becomes a spiral as I continue working to render images of the patterns of the prairie.

"There never was a people who tried so hard- and left so little behind as we do. There never was a pople who traveled so light- and carried so much. " 

Wright Morris, The Inhabitants

After spending eight years photographically exploring the framentary but still extant undisturbed prairie in Kansas, I came to a stopping point. It wasn't that I was bored with its intricate life, its sensuous colors and textures of grass, wind, and sky. It was just that I had photographed it to the limits of my vision. It was only the pristine prairie ecosystem that interested me then.

Four years later, a photograph by Peter Goin brought me to the rest of the prairie. The picture was taken on an abandoned Pacific island atomic bomb test site. It was of a large concrete mound, covering nuclear trash, with a red circle painted around the top and a red cylinder sticking out of the middle. Peter said that to U.S. soldiers flying over this site, the mound looked like a woman's breast. I remembered an aerial view of mine of the unploughed Konza Prairie, near Manhattan, Kansas, in which the prairie hills looked like a woman's breast. Suddenly, I realized 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. The disturbed, cultivated, militarized, industrialized prairie had been abused as surely as that small atoll in the Pacific Ocean. I began to photograph the rest of the prairie.

In photographing the untouched native prairie, I'd often worked at waist-high distance, fascinated by the endless complexity of forbs and grasses on the ground. I'd search for pattern close-up. But looking at the ground of a wheat field is different. There is only wheat and ground. If I wanted to see the simple patterns of agriculture and other human land use, I would have to go higher. I was a detective on a search for evidence of the abuse of prairie. I expected to see the degradation of the prairie by military use, large-scale agriculture, and mining industries.

I climbed into a Cessna 172 and began to explore from a distance of seven hundred to one thousand feet above the ground. I drew a circle on my map of Kansas that showed a twenty-five mile radius around my home, Salina. This was a comfortable range of exploration for the hours of long shadows after sunrise and before sunset. The subtle prairie landforms require slanting sunlight to define their shapes. We flew high enough to see the grid but low enough to see a deer wandering across a bombing target, totally at home on the weapons range.

Over the next five years, I would work with two pilots, both military. Duane Gulker had become a corporate pilot after retiring from the U.S. Air Force, and he flew with me for three years. Then came Major Jonathan Baxt, who was the manager of the National Guard's Smoky Hill Weapons Range, and my neighbor across the street. The pilots became my dance partners. We learned how to dance together so that by movement of my hand, Jon would know how to bank the plane. When I had to change film, Duane would notice and would circle the location until I was ready to proceed.

Jon Baxt partially revised my original assumptions about the Smoky Hill Weapons Range by showing me thirty-four thousand acres well managed for grassland, pasture, and wildlife. Other stories revealed by the facts of the landscape also change my preconceptions. I found that I was no longer looking for abuse of the prairie. Instead, I was simply trying to read its stories from the facts of the landscape. I saw a small carefully tended cemetery in the middle of a wheat field, and carefully nurtured farms, along with land mined on top for wheat and underneath for oil. The prairie contains in her breast many stories of use and misuse, care and neglect. I'm learning how to recognize them from the air and explore them further on the ground.

I met the Johnson brothers, both in their eighties, when I stopped one day at their farm to ask Kenneth if he could tell me about his land. I'd heard it contained an Indian village site from the Smoky Valley people circa 1500 AD. Kenneth said, "Well sure, you can ask me questions, but I don't know much. We've only lived here 50 years." They found points and scrapers and other Native Americans tools regularly when they plowed their wheat fields. They kept the best ones, real beauties, in an old envelope on the kitchen table.

I asked Kenneth and Leibert if they knew anything about the slabs of rock, which looked like walls, in a field near the Smoky Hill Weapons Range eight miles west of their farm. "Well, yes, that's an old German prisoner-of-war camp from World War II. Our homestead was near there, but the U.S. Army came in 1942 and forced us to leave so they could build Camp Phillips, and we came here." 

Layers of use, layers of loss and recovery and loss again, vestiges. These photographs are neither a critique of land use nor a statement about the irony of its beauty. The photographs are not about abstract visual design; they are about specifics places. They show marks that contain contradictions and mysteries that raise questions about how we live on the prairie. All of these places are beautiful to me, perhaps because all land, like the human body, its beautiful.

From where I stood, at the Joliet Arsenal, the cow pies, old winter straw grass, and bare, open slope of the heavily grazed cow pasture looked oddly like an abandoned battlefield as photographed by English photographer roger Fenton in 1865. The photograph, taken shortly after a Crimean War battle, shows bare sloping ground and a path faintly etched, a hundred cannonballs or more scattered on the ground, and not a person living or dead in sight. The military presence on this arsenal landscape was immense, too, with ammunition storage bunkers, 200 miles of narrow-gauge railroad tracks, decaying dynamite factories. the workers were long gone. On this midwestern landscape, I was surrounded by the bare bones of preparation for three wars: World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. I stood there first in February 1995.

Then spring came. When I returned, green was beginning to cover the stark gray outlines of abandonment. Lime green leaves on berry oaks, yellow haze on sugar maples, Virginia bluebells unfolding - vivid color brought the land alive again. Nature had reengaged this military landscape.

The mysteries of the abandoned human stories combined with natures's changes drew me repeatedly to the former arsenal. I wanted to explore this land extensively with my camera. With the permission and assistance of the U.S. Forest Service and Openlands Project, I began to photograph there and continued until fall of 1997. The photographs show the land prior to its restoration, which is happening now.

To understand the space of the 25,000 acres of former arsenal land, I needed to see it from above. From the yellow Piper Cub plane flow by pilot Steve Keibler, at an altitude of about 700 feet, I photographed relationships of places on the ground. I saw that Prairie Creek runs beside the manufacturing area, down through Starr Grove, and I saw a cemetery through a small clearing in the trees. The Drummond Prairie, with its long dropseed grass clumped beside railroad tracks, sits in a far corner outside the arsenal's perimeter chain-link fence and beside power lines next to a marsh. When flying, I saw one place after another revealed quickly, and a map of the area took shape in my mind's eye.

My affection of the land grew as I gradually became acquainted with it. I investigated ruins of arsenal buildings, farms, the Plenemuk prehistoric burial mound, and artifacts of glass, wood, and tin in the ruined house foundations in Hoff Woods. Each time I was there, these contradictory feelings occurred. Was I feeling nostalgia?

The archaic meaning of the word nostalgia is "a severe melancholia caused by protracted absence from home or native place. It seemed to me that the land was longing for its former self. Or was it me longing for the return of the land to itself?

This is a book of hope, about a place on the verge of restoration, a place that has been used solely for human purposes now given back to nature with human care. The Joliet Arsenal is becoming the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie Park. This is a book mainly about the stories of human use of this land up until now. We used to be asking the question, "How can this land serve us?" Now we have turned the question around and are asking, "How can we serve this land?" There will be new human stories mixed with the grasses, but the prairie's own story of grass will speak strongly again.

Late in 1996, I began a photographic aerial survey of mixed grass prairie, covering the area of its ecological boundaries from Canada to Texas. At that time I began reading about the nineteenth-century botanical expeditions to the Great Plains, and felt an immediate affinity and admiration for these naturalists. Probably the main reason I photograph at all is because I fancy myself to be an explorer. Lately, instead of exploring outdoors, I've been exploring the vast collections in the storage areas of Chicago's Field Museum, one of the world's largest natural history museums. I am equally moved by the beauty of both the virgin prairie and the carefully collected and preserved specimens (Figure 1).

Years ago, when my children were little, I began picking up dead birds and an occasional mouse I'd see when I was out for a walk. I'd zip these creatures into plastic bags and put them in the freezer in order to take them out later to photograph them. My daughter would be aghast when, after school, she would bring a friend home, open up the freezer for a Popsicle, and find it populated with dead birds. So, when I started working in the birds collection at The Field and discovered that they have a freezer, I felt I'd come home.

As I worked in the various collections, starting in the herbarium, I began to question my own process. Wasn't photographing these mounted plant specimens the same thing as photographing someone else's painting and calling it mine? Wasn't I simply appropriating someone else's work? I justified my work by telling myself that I'd made the selections from thousands of choices and I'd figured out how I wanted to present them, and isn't art, after all, about organization and selection? Isn't that how I also photograph in landscape? That thought reminded me of why I take pictures at all. It's because I see something that I want to share, that I want to hold up and say, 'Look at this! Isn't it amazing?' So, the answer to my question is, yes; I am taking a picture of someone else's work, as ever, to show you how amazing it is. My pictures are an homage to these plants and creatures and to their collectors.

Another question, harder to answer, was, why kill all these beautiful creatures? They are lost to the world often in the prime of their lives. And why kill so many? Is it that important to gain the information we get from killing so many? Look at the coyote (Figure 2), glossy, gorgeous and dead. It was hard to photograph this coyote. I visited it four or five times before I was able to bring myself to set up the camera. I was in the process of losing my parents during this time, and the sad beauty of the coyote deepened my mourning.

But this, the dispassionate act of collecting, of cataloguing, is how we come to understand the world, isn't it, we of Linnean descent? Karl Linnaeus gave us his taxonomic system in 1735, and he considered it to be inclusive of all of life, though we know, of course that the things he names are infinitely more complicated and interesting to observe than any taxonomy allows. Nevertheless, as playwright Mary Zimmerman has written, 'Scientific inquiry into the ways of the world is an act of sustained, intense attention, which is another way of saying an act of love.'1

When I look again at the coyote, and look at the jackrabbit (Figure 3) I remember Albrecht Durer. Are you familiar with Durer's painting of Large Tuft of Grass (1603) and his Hare (1602)? Northern German painters such as Durer, Hans Hoffman, and others had a keen sense of observation, almost scientific in its intensity. Or is it artistic in its intensity? Is there a difference ? 

The dried leaves, the feathers, the fur, the glass, and the labels of the specimens I photographed at the Museum embody a tactile sensuousness that I want to communicate. The clarity of detail possible with digital printing and the quality of color and paper available with Iris printing make this expression possible. It is important to me to present the specimens in a way that shows the viewer something close to my own experience of seeing them. However, the finished print, in an odd way, sometimes looks more like the specimen than the specimen itself. Perhaps this is because these highly detailed images move all the visual information to a two-dimensional surface.

The plants held just as much a sense of presence as the animals, and in some ways were even more evocative, in the yellowing of the paper on which the specimens were mounted, in the flourish of handwriting on the labels, in the romance of time and place suggested by these labels. I had just been reading about the great western explorer, John Wesley Powell, when I came across a specimen of Big Bluestem grass collected by George Vasey, a great nineteenth century botanist, on Powell's first expedition toward the Grand Canyon in 1868. Powell didn't make it to the Grand Canyon that year and George Vasey dropped out of the expedition early, but this is one of the specimens he brought back home. As I held this specimen, my skin tingled and I felt as if I were touching the hand of the collector himself.In the exhibition, we tried to heighten this sense of involvement by including field journals and other written material produced by the scientist/collectors, including an 1868 letter we found in the Field archives from Vasey, in which he reports receiving a promise of assistance for his Colorado collecting expedition from General Ulysses S. Grant.

Another theme of the exhibition is the paradox between the unique individual and the generic type. For every species that is collected, there is a type specimen: the one specimen that represents all the other specimens and by which the others of its kind are measured, sort of the Miss America of that species. But just as important as the unique, individual type specimens are the large populations that accompany it. Look at the drawer of meadowlarks (Figure 5). Each black bib is slightly different, one from the other. 

Matt Matcuk has written that as the world rages on, scientists must still collect. 2 For example, the bullsnakes (Figure 6) were caught during the Great Depression, the Texas spiny softshell turtle during World War Two. Matt said he found this somehow comforting. So did I. One of my first meetings about this exhibition with my Field Museum project team was the week after September 11. As we sat in the museum cafe, the museum staff members were very focused on discussing the development of this exhibition. I was not focused. I was distracted and wondered how an exhibition of this work could possibly matter in light of the tragedy a few days earlier at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in rural Pennsylvania. How could my work, or the work of scientific collecting, matter in the shadow of those events? But I got through that time of doubt because I eventually was able to remember that sustained, intense seeing of the world does matter. It always matters.

How else can we know where we fit in relationship to everything else in the world, but by seeing it with attention, concentrated sustained attention. And that is where my work and the collectors' work comes together. 

When I began exploring the shelves in the collections storage area of the Museum of Science and Industry in 2003, I was immediately drawn to the wooden boxes which contained tools or machine parts, I could not identify hardly anything I saw. I'm interested in not just what these objects are, but also in the careful and fine ways they were made and protected in wooden boxes- like jewels. Opening each one I entered a story where I could imagine who made the object and why and what its maker believed about the world of science and industry and how the object came to be on the museum shelf. Each box contained a whole world view and each box contained fierce attention to design and craftsmanship.

The design of the 1897 sleek stenographic machine in its sleek leather case with shoulder strap surely rivals the newest laptop computer design in 2008. While the museum continues to collect today, these early acquisitions help us celebrate the origins of thought that created the Museum of Science and Industry seventy-five years ago.

In 2007, I returned to the Museum of Science and Industry on invitation of the museum to explore further for an exhibition. After looking behind the scenes into almost every aspect of the Museum, I realized that it was the collections storage areas that still fascinated me most, so I photographed in those rooms to show the amazing juxtapositions of objects, combinations of time and memory that puzzled and delighted me.

Chicago's Millennium Park from Friday, June 10 through Monday, October 10, 2005.
The exhibition was presented by Openlands Project, Chicago Metropolis 2020 and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, with the generous support of LaSalle Bank and Exelon Corporation.

For years my work was about the subtle beauty of rural prairie and how we use it, so even though Chicago felt like home soon after I moved here in 1994, I didn't know how to photograph it. Openlands Project and Metropolis 2020 gave me the opportunity to figure out. Each flight was a voyage of discovery for me. Every time I flew, I studied maps from out project meetings, and made a list of subjects to photography, but often my favorite pictures were not on the list. I worked in the mornings and evenings with sunshine essential, and watched the weather unceasingly. 

I intend to highlight issues that concern everyone in Chicago, but that is not all. I want to share the beauty of this gorgeous, complicated city. Sometimes Chicago from above reminds me of looking at virgin prairie found from waist level twenty-five years ago, when I photographed the rich interweaving intricacy of grasses. More than anything, I wanted to show the diversity and complexity of Chicago, yet I have not even come close. This is an incomplete portrait, a fraction of a second in the life of Chicago, and every picture contains more stories than the image reveals. 

From inside working steel mills, I have experienced the mystery of transformation by fire of raw materials into steel. It is a process somewhat like any truly creative work- dangerous, terrifying, and beautiful. The stakes for a steelworker involve his or her very life. My obsession with the workings of steel mills was a journey into an underworld of darkness and fire and I felt that I was close to an ancient process, both thrilling and threatening. I worked primarily in East Chicago, Indiana, but also in Cleveland, Ohio, Burns Harbor, Indiana, and Coatesville, Pennsylvania.

After two years of photographing in steel mills, I'm now photographing the sources of raw materials for making steel. IÕve done both ground and aerial photography near Virginia, Minnesota where iron ore is mined. These pictures raise questions about the destruction of land necessary to produce steel which feeds many of our desires.

In the Spring of 1978, quite by accident, I began the photography that would shape and direct my work for the next thirty years. Wes Jackson of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, where I lived, asked me to photographically record some survey work that he and his students were doing on a nearby virgin prairie.

My visits started in early March and as the spring progressed and grasses and legumes and other plants emerged from the ground, I began to see the rich ecological diversity of a prairie. This was my first experience of seeing an undisturbed ecosystem and I was almost overcome with passion to know it better. Its subtle beauty completely captured me. I came every day to photograph the ground. This eighty acre prairie belonged to Nick and Joyce Fent, who gave me a key to the gate, a key to a place so full of beautiful information that I knew then that I could explore it for years and still not know it all, not even close. I made over 4000 black and white pictures of the ground over the next year before I finally raised my camera up and started including the horizon line and color.

I read Gregory Bateson:
'What pattern connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and all four them to me? And me to you? And all the six of us to the amoeba in one direction and to the back ward schizophrenic in another? What is the pattern that connects all the living creatures?'

It seemed to me that if I looked long enough and hard enough at the prairie ground, I would begin to see these patterns in the prairie. I photographed with a wide-angle lens from waist level moving through the grasses looking, looking, looking.

My exploration of the prairie carried me into color and aerial work and reading about biology and Plains Indians and Persian miniature paintings and explorations of both eastern spiritual disciplines and my own Christianity. I questioned broadly and the prairie led me.I only printed a few of these black and white prairie ground pictures until now. 

I decided to return to this earliest work and to scan some of these negatives. At first, I made single images, but quickly became bored with them. A visit to the New York Public Library to see an exhibition of EHON books, Japanese scroll books that were about personal subjects, like poems, convinced me to make scrolls from my grasses pictures. In the original work, I did not include the pictures I'd made for myself of my friends and family and dogs that sometimes accompanied me. Those pictures were not part of the 'serious' work of seeking to understand the structure of the prairie. Now, almost thirty years later, I understand that they are part of the story, too. So, these prairie scrolls are not the reprinting of earlier work, they are instead, a body of work that has required almost thirty years to become fully realized.

A GREENLAND GLACIER: The Scale of Climate Change 2008
On the invitation of the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas, I began to think about how to respond as an artist photographer to the work being done by K.U. Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets. CReSIS measures the depth of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica to understand the rate of melting and thus better understand the rate of climate change. I wanted to see Greenland.

Before I went to Greenland, I imagined that my work would be about describing the Jakobshavn Glacier for an audience back home, much like photographer William Henry Jackson did in 1871, when he accompanied Dr. Ferdinand Hayden, geologist to Yellowstone, bringing back gorgeous photographs of that uncharted territory. My reality was different. I did aerially photograph, from a helicopter, the ice fjord leading to the calving front of the Jakobshavn Glacier and I did photograph the glacier front and its surface, but what I saw was confusing and frustrating. I could not understand what I was seeing because there were no human markers below me on the ice. I had no sense of scale. Was that chunk of ice twenty stories high or knee high?

Looking at my aerial pictures at home gave me no clarity. I later learned that the front of the glacier is about 70 meters high, about like a twenty story building. Finally I remembered that the heart of the work that CReSIS is doing is measuring the depth of the glacier and the rate at which it's melting and thereby being able to predict the rate of climate change and that understanding climate change is a challenging task. My own frustration in trying to understand the scale of the glacier pointed out to me that understanding the scale of climate change is equally difficult. 

Both CReSIS and I were there to gather visual data to understand the glacier and this common work is what this exhibition is finally about. You will see here examples of CReSIS data along with my images. One of the best things about being in Ilulissat when I was there was the opportunity to observe the work that the CReSIS and NASA teams were doing in their work together. CReSIS was measuring the glacier depth and NASA was supporting their work by measuring the topography of the grid they were flying. I watched them in the airplane hanger at their computer data processing as the team in the radar equipped plane collected data from two four hour flights a day.

Another of the benefits to being there when I was, from June 23 to June 30, was that the sun never set. A midnight cruise among the icebergs in Disko Bay was among the most exhilarating experiences of my life, especially the minutes of silence when the fishing boat motor was turned off and we floated in cold sunny silence.

The landscape in Greenland on Pre-Cambrian rock, where there are no trees, was splendid to my eye. I explored the fen that has a rocky path leading to the ice fjord that leads to the mouth of the glacier. I kept remembering the prairies of Kansas.

A Greenland Glacier: the Scale of Climate Change
Spencer Museum of Art
University of Kansas

February 7, 2009-May 24, 2009