Earth Mirrors Sky: The Making of a Great Plains Photograph
Text and photographs by Lew Ableidinger
The Great Plains can evoke a sense of loneliness. An unending horizon and vast, open sky can overwhelm a person. There are places so quiet all one can hear is their own breathing and the wind. This photograph, Ice Fishing Near Eckelson, ND, captures the sense of isolation and loneliness that can come on the Great Plains. A single man sits on a bucket fishing, surrounded only by ice and a few groves of trees while massive clouds dwarf the landscape beneath the sky.
It was possible to look up our driveway and see our neighbor’s farm a mile to the north with nothing in between but a wheat field.
I grew up on the Great Plains, on a farm near the small town of Kensal, ND. In high school I picked up a camera and began to photograph the railroads and small towns around me. These towns held evidence of what once was, a busy Main Street lined with businesses to support the farming community around it; what existed now was a lot of abandoned buildings waiting to either be razed or simply collapse on their own (something that actually became a threat to the public in the small town of Columbus, ND). I set out with a camera to document what was there before it all disappeared.
For high school graduation my parents gave me a book as a gift, In Search of Lake Wobegon with photographs by Richard Olsenius and text by Garrison Keillor. Olsenius went into central Minnesota with a 4x5 camera in search of the fictional town of Lake Wobegon, the town which Keillor told stories about on his weekly radio show A Prairie Home Companion. The book was filled with rich black and white photos of people and places that looked a lot like the people and places I grew up with. I had never seen anyone photograph the Midwest in this way. It set me on a different path with my photography, one that has evolved into trying to capture on film the Midwest; the people, the places, the feel of it.
In February of 2016 I was traveling from my home in central North Dakota to visit friends in Fargo. Since I had no particular hurry to get there I decided to take the back roads to see if I could find anything interesting to point my camera at along the way. It began as an overcast winter day with muted, flat light, which can be great for certain photographs but too dull for others. The first thing I found to photograph was a rusted and shot up 4H sign welcoming people to Barnes County. By chance I w as able to capture both a pickup truck and a train going in the opposite direction of the sign, as if everyone was trying to leave the county by any means possible. The scene was completed with a discarded beer can in the grass next to the sign, an indication of the prevalence of alcohol consumption in the Midwest.
I continued my drive by taking old US Highway 10 (replaced by I-94 across ND) east. As I continued the overcast sky began to break up from a white sheet of clouds into massive, billowing monsters with hints of cyan and blue coming through the breaks. As I came upon Eckelson Lake I saw a single car pulled off the road. My guess was that it was someone out ice fishing, the favored pastime in the frozen north. I was expecting to see some sort of fishing shanty on the ice and was a bit surprised to instead see a lone fisherman sitting on a bucket out in the open. It used to be this was how a lot of people went ice fishing but anymore most people have some kind of shelter, anything ranging from a portable tent-like structure to an extravagant Ice Castle. It was nice to see someone out fishing the old-fashioned way.
As I drove by I thought what a great photograph this would make, the guy alone out on this weirdly blue ice with these massive clouds rolling overhead. I was using a 4x5 field camera at the time, so just getting a quick photo without drawing attention to myself was out of the question. I’m a pretty shy person and most people I had photographed were ones I knew so I was reluctant to go disturb a stranger to explain what I was doing with this tripod and big camera, so I decided to just keep driving on.
Continuing down the road the idea of this picture just kept nagging at me. The further I got from the scene the better it looked in my head and I knew I would regret it if I didn’t go back. I turned the car around and found a place to pull off behind his car, working up in my mind what I was going to tell this guy what I was up to.
I made my way out on to the ice, pushing myself outside my limits of comfort, having no idea what this guy may say to me…
He turned around, “They just aren’t biting today!” he said. In an instant my trepidation turned to relief as he began talking fishing with me. The guy’s name was Mike and he said he spent a lot of time fishing this lake and usually knew where the fish were biting, but was mostly just enjoying the mild (for North Dakota) weather for the day. Perhaps that’s why he wasn’t under some sort of structure. Maybe it was more about just being outside than catching fish. He seemed to enjoy the company of me being out there.
I became aware I’d probably be there for a while before I could make any pictures, which initially worried me about how the light would change since I first spotted him. But as I talked to him I realized the light was improving, the clouds were becoming more ominous, and more sky was peering through. We had a conversation for about 45 minutes, about fishing, about his nephew, about not being able to work due to a disability. I finally told him about the picture I wanted to make and he said sure, go ahead. What a relief!
I hiked back out across the ice and retrieved the tripod and camera from my car and moved to a few various positions before settling on this one. Anyone who has used a view camera in cold weather has probably experienced the frustration of making adjustments with numb fingers and the ground glass getting fogged up under the dark cloth. The light was a bit tricky since there was a mix of sun and shadows over a snow and ice covered landscape and I was shooting to the south, into the sun. Not wanting to risk ruining the exposure I cheated a little and used a digital camera to find the proper exposure for the dark areas. I use color negative film so I knew if I had the shadows right there would be enough latitude in the film to make the image work. I managed to get the scene composed and focused and made four exposures, two of him standing and two of him sitting. I dove into large format a few years ago precisely so I could make large, sharp images and I can’t imagine this picture working on anything smaller.
The huge landscape really comes to life with the clarity of large format, something I couldn’t achieve with the 35mm and medium format cameras I used to work with.
The thought has come back to me about how I almost didn’t turn around but knew I would regret not making this photograph if I didn’t. It was worth stepping outside my comfort zone to make this picture, something I’ve been trying to do more as my photography progresses. I’m currently working on a large project about the Midwest I call Driving Through Flyover Country, a play on words about driving through a part of the country most people prefer to just fly over. This photograph has become a part of it, looking at what is unique about the people and places of the Midwest. Since I have made this picture I have continued to push myself outside my comfort limits to begin to capture the human element of the Midwest, the landscape and the towns are just a small part of it, but it’s people who built the towns and live there that make it interesting.
In the end I was quite happy I made the decision to turn around and confront my reluctance to approach a stranger. The picture turned out as I had imagined it in my head. I entered the photo into a juried exhibition at the Midwest Center for Photography in Wichita, KS. The exhibit was judged by the gallery director, Linda Robinson, and this photo won the director’s choice award in the people category. In addition it has also appeared in exhibits in Fargo, ND, and at the North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks.
Southwest of Lostwood Lake and Wildrose,
a mailman pulls off a gravel road at noon,
turns off the car motor and just sits,
motionless, staring out the window.
Only the sound of his breathing
and ceaseless wind in waves of wheat.
He counts six clouds in the sky,
two trees on the horizon.
-Michael Moos, “The Mailman Near Wildrose”
Moos, Michael. “The Mailman Near Wildrose.” A Long Way to See. Fargo, ND: The North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, 1987.
After reading this story and mulling over it, the heart of it came out to me. It’s a story of two people applying themselves to the landscape. Here is the photographer, looking to create a picture speaking to his own convictions; and here is this anonymous figure with his old fashioned way of passing the time, fishing. The story here recalls folk traditions and the song “Fishing Blues” by Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas came to mind. Folk to me is defined as the eloquence of a simple act. Lew’s portrait of the fisherman is really a portrait of himself, the artist. That’s what makes this so poignant. -JS
Lew Ableidinger is a photographer based out of North Dakota. See his website here. I first made Lew’s acquaintance at the Center for Railroad Photography & Art’s 2013 Conference. He most recently exhibited in New York City at Station Independent Project’s WE: AMEricans Exhibition curated by Rubel Natal San-Miguel and in 2017 at the Midwest Center for Photography.
For a more detailed discussion on using the large format camera, see In the Mind’s Eye: Working in Large Format