Arts & Culture / Mosaic / October 18, 2017

Americana in Midwestern Landscapes

Middle American Lives

Renowned photographer Chris Verene is from the Midwest. His grandparents and extended family lived in Galesburg, so the town became a second home to him. Verene has spent 30 years cultivating a body of work centered on the lives of those who live in small towns. His work is distinctly photo-documentary style and follows the lives of subjects Verene has a close personal connection to. Many of his photographs feature family members Verene grew up around. On Oct. 11, Verene came to Knox College to talk about his work.

For Verene, taking photos of subjects is what came naturally to him. Verene was initially just taking photos of his family members for holidays and important events, not thinking much of the cultural value of his photographs. It was only until some of his photographer friends started showing interest in his family portraits that he began to realize their artistic merit.   

“I had been documenting my family my whole life,” Verene said in his presentation, “but I didn’t have that excitement of someone caring and someone being interested in what I considered to be so plain and everyday.”

Verene realized his photowork could be something transformative and accessible for people beyond just his family. There are themes that Verene conveys in his his work that resonate within Americana: the importance of family, the strain of economic depression and the perseverance of Middle America. Verene delves deep into the lives of his family members with his camera. Viewers get photographs of his cousins’ marriages, their neighbors and the lives of their children. However, Verene also shows the the lows of his cousins’ lives. Their divorces, their failed job opportunities and desperate economic situations.

“It’s so amazing what Chris Verene did with those families,” senior Olivia Thiel said. “I can’t know them, but I’ll never forget them.”

For Thiel, the talk was important because she felt like it helped connect the audience to the surrounding area around Knox. She feels like students often take living in Galesburg for granted, and ignore the larger things the town has to offer.

“There are some things you can’t really see when you don’t look at the whole story, and cases like Galesburg – it’s a long story,” Thiel said. “I think a lot of Knox people come from places like Chicago or St. Louis, places where there are lots of fast stories… I just wonder how much that matters in the face of 30 years of photography.”

Professor of photography and Galesburg native Mike Godsil was able to offer a different perspective, as he actually knew many of Verene’s subjects personally.

“There are in some cases, tenderness that comes through [in the photos]. There is a feeling of a relaxed captured moment.” Godsil said.

However, Godsil did note that Verene’s earlier work had some controversies surrounding it. Viewers were worried the photographs were exploitive of the economic situation Verene’s cousins were going through. Godsil did not personally share those concerns, but he believed Verene was more cautious in the work he put out as he got older.

Furthermore, Godsil feels like because Verene spent so much time getting to know his subjects, his work was not explotive, but instead intimate.

“The reason Verene’s images are making an impression, is because he allows you to feel like you’re inside a moment that you wouldn’t be able to experience as a stranger who walked into that person’s house,” Godsil said.

Middle American Landscapes

“[My pictures] are presented as a story that’s happening. I’m not controlling it,  I’m just recording it,”  Verene said. “This is a photograph of East Galesburg. I always think of it  as East Galesburg because you don’t see a hill until you get that far into town.”

Verene shows only a handful of photographs he’s taken of the Midwestern landscape. He states in his presentation that landscapes are what elude him as a photographer. Though actual landscapes are not present in many of Verne’s photographs, they do inform the work he presents. Certainly, it’s clear that both he and his subjects are from the Midwest.

“I think landscape is everything, everything is tied to land and Chris Verene was so, so Galesburg, ” Thiel said. “I grew up in the Midwest, I went to high school in China, but when I came back Galesburg became my home.”

Thiel makes the point that in America, so much of our culture depends on the land we live on. People have state pride and there are physical aspects of their environment that are tied to that pride. Thiel mentions association between corn fields and the Midwest and the relationship to rain and the East Coast. For Thiel, there were photographs of Verene’s environment that reminded her of her own life.

“Something about his photographs, like the shot of his back porch looking out at the other houses, brought my childhood rushing back to me,”  Thiel said  “To think there were some people sitting in that talk that didn’t experience that is really interesting to me.”

Despite being centric on Midwestern lives, Godsil  believes that Verene’s work has little to do with landscapes. According to Godsil, landscapes can usually follow three distinct categories.

“The romantic period identified landscapes that showed human habitation, especially in rural areas, ” Godsil said.

Godsil then described the second category of landscapes as picturesque, where the subject matter has not been altered by human contact. As an example, Godsil referenced his photographs at Starving Rock, Ill. as picturesque images of untouched nature.

“The third is the sublime which shows the awesome nature of photographs, this would include dangerous looking ravines, that sort of thing,” Godsil said. “I would contend with the exception of a couple of his early images, none of Verene’s work really falls under those categories.”

Though Verene is hyper-detailed in his documentation of Middle American lives, it’s interesting that he admits that the Middle American landscape is a challenge for him. Godsil links this challenge to the way early expeditionary photographers had trouble recording what the Midwest looked like for people living in the East.

“One of the challenged here in the Midwestern landscape is that you have these wide flat expanses and really big sky. There are only so many ways you can photograph a corn field in a manner that makes them striking or visually interesting,” Godsil said.

According to Godsil, expeditionaries were unsure of how to display the vast Midwestern sky in a single photograph. To combat this, they would put human figures in the foreground of the photo to give a sense of scale.

“Otherwise it’s so expansive that there was no way for viewers in the east to have any concept of the space. I think that is a challenge for any photographer,” Godsil said.

In a sense, Verene combats the ways Americana is so expansive by placing intimate and personal photographs in the foreground of American culture.

“America is all about land, especially since this country is so big. You do have to travel a long ways before the landscape changes,” Theil said. “You are where you live and there is definitely some pride that comes with that and struggles unique to that.”

Zarah Khan, Co-Mosaic Editor

Tags:  Chris Verene Galesburg Midwest Mike Godsil Photography

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