Monday, July 25, 2011

Peter Brown, western photographer

West of Last Chance (2008). This terrific collection of color photographs is an unsentimental but loving portrait of the High Plains, from West Texas north to the Dakotas. All manage to bring the panorama of this wide-open country within the viewfinder of the still camera. Photographer Peter Brown's achievement is to show the suggestive and telling details that transform these "empty" landscapes into spaces that are filled with drama and atmosphere.

Among many things, he shows us prairie land now cultivated and overgrazed, often with the blasted look of early spring when trees are barely in leaf and the earth seems still in shock from the extremes of the previous winter.

There's a balance between photos of vast flat landscapes and distant horizons under endless skies and shots of small-town storefronts, often with quirky signage. For example, the dance hall in Merriman, Nebraska, with a small sign at one corner pointing to the "South Entrance."

Towns and landscapes alike are depopulated. Maybe a single person walks, stands or sits somewhere in the frame, giving the impression of social isolation. Lacking captions (the locations of all photos are listed at the back), these images force you to look more deeply into them for what there is to be seen and comprehended. I liked that.

The minimal text supplied by author Kent Haruf, however, is often about interactions between people – both early settlers and modern-day inhabitants. The account of the football game in sub-freezing temperatures is a brilliant short-short story. As a former resident of the plains, just east of the 100th meridian, I can attest to the veracity of everything that Brown and Haruf have included in this wonderful book.

On the Plains (1999). An earlier collection by Brown, with an introduction by Kathleen Norris, brings together   photos taken 1985-1995. There are similar themes. A shot of winter prairie, south of Edgerton, Wyoming, reveals the contoured undulations of grasslands thick with frost, the banks of a shallow wash weaving into the distance, the horizon blending into the brightly overcast sky. The entire image seems sepia-tinted in the winter light.

An early summer shot of ground water standing dark and rippled in a Nebraska Sandhills pond shows tufted grasses in the foreground leaning with the wind. A single slender fence post is echoed in the distance by a single tree in full leaf and just visible beyond it a windmill. The grass extends to the gently rolling horizon where a white thundercloud begins to pile upward into the vivid blue of a brightly sunlit sky.

Light, shadow, clouds, all seem still but are in movement, and many of the photographs heighten a sense of time's gradual passing – the hour, the day, the season, the years. A roadside directory, indicating the distances to ranches has been weathered and sun-bleached. An old shingle-roofed elevator stands empty and overgrown with trees. There's a disused one-room school, white paint worn by wind and rain down to the bare boards. Tall weeds grow in the playground, and the setting sun casts the shadow of a swing set against a side wall.

And there are many signs of life, as well – a general store with gas pumps and pop machines in front, a TV antenna overhead, and a gravel lot for parking; a barber shop with curving glass brick and shiny red tile facade, with an American flag on a pole at the curb; a last-picture-show cinema, the Rialto, with nothing on the marquee, but above it a wonderful mural of cowboys around the campfire and a chuck wagon with "Welcome to Brownville" on its canvas covering.

There are photographs of small town life – a young man and little girl stand by the front door of a tiny house, the white siding bright in the late afternoon sun and a darkening sky behind them; a sign painter sits on the back of his truck under a hand-lettered sign, "Advertise Dammit Advertise Before We Both Go Under"; a floor-to-ceiling chalkboard is filled with for-sale notices for hay hauling, an early American sofa and matching swivel/rocker, a 3/4 ton Chev. 4x4, toy poodles, chow puppies, and a bird-dog that "will point."

And this really only scratches the surface of both collections. The photographs reveal themselves slowly, and with a patient and inquisitive eye, there is much to see in all of them. For anyone who grew up on the Plains and now lives elsewhere, this book is like a return home. You will see much that you recognize, recall the quieter pace of life, and marvel again at the great diversity of landscape, seasons, and weather.

Both books are currently available at amazon.

Coming up: Charles King, Dunraven Ranch (1890)


  1. West of last Chance is a great title. I wish I'd thought of that.

  2. The cover pictures are great, reflecting the distance and isolation that the pioneers faced and even today some of it hasn't changed much except for the cultivation.