The following is an interview with Nancy Warner whose photographs accompany text by David Stark in This Place, These People: Life and Shadow on the Great Plains. To view photographs and excerpts from the book click here, here, and here.
Question: What is your own personal relationship to rural Nebraska? How did this shape the project and your choices as a photographer?
Nancy Warner: Coauthor David Stark is my cousin. Our great-grandfather, August Stark, filed a claim under the Homestead Act in Elkhorn Township, Cuming County Nebraska in 1865. Part of that farm is still in our family. I made the first photographs in this series in the old house on the Stark farm place. After that, relatives and people in the area helped me find other places to photograph. The combination of my own emotional connection with such places, dramatic lighting, and richly textured surfaces inspired me from the beginning.
Q: The images and words in the book do not have a direct relationship in the sense that the photos do not necessarily illustrate the words and the words do not explain the photographs. How did you and David conceive of the words and images as working together in the book?
NW: David and I paired the photographs with the text based on the voices themselves: the sounds, rhythms, and emotions that seemed best to set off the feeling of each photograph. We were inspired, in part, by the photo texts of Wright Morris.
Q: Was there a particular rationale for not including photographs of the people who contributed their thoughts about life in rural Nebraska?
NW: The focus of this photographic project has been the buildings themselves. The people are present in their voices, and in the stories told by the photographs. As Wright Morris says in The Inhabitants, “In all my life I’ve never seen anything so crowded,so full of something, as the rooms of a vacant house.”
Q: You cite the photographs of Solomon Butcher and Wright Morris as inspiring your photographs. To what extent do you see these photographs as part of a longer tradition of depicting rural America?
NW: The photographers mentioned in the afterword are only a few of the many who have recorded life on the Great Plains since the middle of the nineteenth century. Solomon Butcher stands out for me in part because, as David says in the afterword, “While Solomon Butcher’s photographs portray objects in familial surroundings, Nancy Warner’s photographs portray objects in abandonment. Almost 150 years after Butcher persuaded the homesteaders to pose outdoors with their possessions, Nancy goes into the decaying buildings to photograph what’s left behind.” Many of Wright Morris’s photographs also feature interiors and the objects they contain.
Q: Many of the photographs capture images of decay and desolation but to what extent do you see the photographs as preserving or providing a documentation of a way of life that is fading?
NW: David’s afterword describes the settlement of the area and changes in farming practices that led to the abandonment of the farm houses. Farming is still very much alive in Cuming County today, but there are fewer small family farms. One way of life is fading, but the farming way of life continues to evolve. The emotions evoked by the photographs help to keep these places and a simpler time alive in the memories of readers.
Q: What has been the reaction of the photographs and the book among people in rural Nebraska?
NW: The book has been well-received in Nebraska. Since the book has come out and articles about it have been published, I’ve heard from many Midwesterners who’ve thanked me for doing it and told me stories about their own home places. The people in Cuming county are proud to have been part of the different stages of the project, and consider the book their own.