Prairies and Steel Mills

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Photographer Terry Evans seems fascinated by systems, whether it’s the interconnectedness of the prairie, or of steel mills, with their web of necessary raw materials, that now crouch on land that used to be prairie.

Her prairie work goes back to March 1978, when Evans, then living in Kansas, was asked to photograph some survey work that Wes Jackson of the Land Institute, was doing on a nearby 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,” she says. “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.”

Evans says she shot 4,000 black-and- white negatives of the ground before she got around to including color and the horizon line a year later. Soon after, she began photographing from above the ground, usually in a small airplane (though sometimes a helicopter), where the layout of the landscape became as important as the details. “I was noticing organic patterns on the ground and began to wonder what they would look like from 1,000 feet,” she explains. “And I became taken with how interconnected everything appears from the air. You get this very interesting way of putting a picture together: the patterns and relationships, scale and distance. Formal spatial relationships fascinate me.”

Slag Processing, East Chicago, Indiana, August 31, 2006

Roughing Process, R3, East Chicago, Indiana, March 3, 2006

Despite that, she avoids complete abstraction, and considers the ease with which it can be achieved in aerial photography to be a danger. “I want people to know what they’re looking at,” she says. “It’s important to me to honor what a landscape is, not just use it for my own purposes to make some kind of design.”

One of Evans’ photos, for example, is of an empty field, broken only by the subtle curve of a road in the upper left corner and, beside it, two small grain silos and their long shadows. It’s not much information, but it’s enough. “It tells you a lot of things,” Evans explains. “How empty that landscape is, that it’s a working landscape of some kind, and it suggests scale because you know about how large a silo is. It brings in the human story of the landscape.” On a recent photo expedition to photograph glaciers in Greenland, she found little to provide human scale and therefore found photographing difficult.

In an odd way, photographing the prairie led to Evans taking pictures of steel mills.

Her prairie work helped get her involved with a project to photograph Chicago from the air (which lead to her 2005 book Revealing Chicago: An Aerial Portrait), partly to examine it as an ecosystem (she has described Chicago as “an urban prairie”). And while photographing Chicago, she became interested in the steel mills in northern Indiana that she kept passing near, and they captured her attention in the same way the prairie had.

“I got very involved in the intensity of the steelmaking process,” she says. “It’s all about fire and smoke and danger, the transformation of raw materials.” This led to a closer look at the raw materials for steel, and, for example, a trip to Minnesota to photograph the mining of iron ore.

Two Silos, East of Great Falls, Montana, Sept. 28, 1999

Oak Street Beach, Chicago, April 27, 2004

All of which seems unrelated to her prairie work, she allows, adding, “I now realize that [both projects] are about what the Earth means to us. I look at steelmaking and how the process tears up the Earth, but are we going to quit using steel? I just raise the pictures up as questions. I’ve always focused on things that cause me a certain amount of wonder and questioning, and I photograph them because they have a certain kind of beauty—but may also contain powers that destroy.”

Evans shoots film in a Hasselblad (or, more recently, a Mamiya 7) or 4×5 Linhof Technika or K. B. Canham camera, and makes high-resolution scans from it. She notes that for her air work she uses a 1/500 second shutter speed or faster to minimize motion blur, and an f-stop of ƒ/5.6 or ƒ/8. Her film is Kodak Portra 160 NC, which is less saturated than many other color films. She has a gyrostabilizer that she uses if shooting from a helicopter, but doesn’t bring it on road trips because it’s too heavy to lug around.

This work has been sufficiently successful that she’s exhibited it widely, including one- person shows at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and the Field Museum of Natural History. She is a Guggenheim Fellow, and has work in major museums including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Whitney Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Iron Ore Pit, Virginia, Minnesota, Oct. 24, 2007