Friday, June 25, 2010

Homestead's Artist-in-Residence: Why this land and not some other?

An artist residency at Homestead National Monument offers so many opportunities for a photographer. What am I expecting to see? Obviously the land as it is today after efforts to return it to the original tall grass prairie Daniel Freeman would have seen. Around it, though, is other, similar land exhibiting the 150 years of agricultural efforts started by homesteaders. The contrast is very appealing to me as a way to tell a story through pictures.

by Mel Mann

My photography passion is the outdoors. After years in a corporate life my ability to be outdoors with my camera is very appealing. As many visitors have discovered, the land of the Monument is filled with visual opportunities. Here I am able to find compositions ranging from expansive views to tiny flowers hiding in the grass, from winding creek muddied with the silt of the ground to streaming clouds flying across the sun or moon. Deer and birds roam the prairie constantly, some shy and some gregarious. There is a rhythm to the changing land felt in the wind blowing the grasses into a waving surf and the light playing across the ground as clouds race under the sun.

What intrigues me the most about a residency at Homestead National Monument is the accessibility of the park. You can see the whole of the park in an afternoon stroll. Unlike other locations in the national park system, Homestead is defined by its history - 160 acres of land served as a home and business - not by the grand landscape. The Monument represents history along with being a place in history, a proxy for all the other homesteads across the country. It is a lens that focuses on the efforts of a grand experiment to return public lands to the country’s citizens.

I’ve roamed around the woods and prairie for two weeks during all times of day and night, observing the weather changing the light. Light is critical to photographers beyond simply illumination. It is the medium we use to sculpt an image, the way we draw the viewer’s eye to what we believe are the important parts of the picture. The variable spring weather has given me ample options for lighting from clear sky to racing clouds to overcast. Combined with patience afforded by my residency - wait a bit and the light will change - I’ve found compositions a casual glance might miss. Simply paying attention to what is going on around me and what I am seeing through my viewfinder. That’s a significant advantage to a residency. Not rushed into taking snapshots but given time to make photographs.

Through all this part of the wonder is whether I’m seeing the land like Daniel Freeman saw it. Not only the lay of the land, the wildlife and vegetation, but rather the possibilities held by the land. Why this land and not some other? Why these boundaries and not some other shape? How did he see the future of this 160 acres for his family?

To get benefit from his homestead, Daniel Freeman had to change it to agricultural uses. Crops meant food for family and market, trees meant logs for cabins and fences, clay turned into bricks for a more solid and weather-tight house. All these changes took a toll on the prairie, some that are evident in pictures from the late 1800s and early 1900s but not evident in the Monument today. Continued practices virtually eliminated the original shape and look of the land around it, though, as any traveler through the Great Plains will note. Terraced furrows of corn, soybeans, sunflowers and wheat now stand where prairie once reigned.

We are still learning the value of prairie as it was originally. Knowledge of the benefits from environmental diversity were unavailable as the homesteaders fanned out across this part of the country. The land as they saw it was presumed useless until the hand of man created value from it. Over the intervening time we’ve learned there is value in seemingly empty prairie, more than the crops that can be grown on it. There are physical and emotional benefits of being at a place like Homestead Monument, seeing the land as it was. Part of my photography is intended to capture the essence of those benefits and preserve them for reflection.

Mel Mann Photography, LLC

15418 Weir St. #334
Omaha, NE 68137

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