Illinois in Camera
Visions of an unseen nature
Nature of Illinois
A piece that might have been different had I not been writing it for an outfit called the Nature of Illinois Foundation. I said nothing I didn't believe about these books, but I perhaps didn't say say quite everything I believed.
Reviewed: Prairiescapes: Photographs by Larry kanfer, University of Illinois Press, 1987; Illinois: Photos of Gary Irving by Gary Irving, Graphic Arts Center Publishing Co., 1988; and Illinois Images of the Landscape by Willard Clay, Westcliffe Publishing, 1988
"When people see my scenes from Horseshoe Lake they say, ‘I didn't know we had cypress swamps in Illinois,’" explains nature photographer Willard Clay. "And it's true that those scenes don't look much like Illinois." The magic of a good photograph, however, is its ability to reveal things we may have looked at a hundred times but have never really seen. And few landscapes are as little seen as Illinois'. The prosaic charms of its agricultural expanse are seldom appreciated, its surviving pristine wonders—tucked into the far corners of the state and in a few river valleys in between—are seldom visited.
A dramatically different Illinois is revealed in three handsome books of landscape and nature photographs now in bookstores. The publication in 1987 of Larry Kanfer's collection, Prairiescapes, announced a renewed interest in art photos of the Illinois landscape. Since then two new collections have been released—Illinois by Gary Irving and Illinois: Images of the Landscape by Willard Clay.
Each of these books is generously sized and handsomely produced, and each contains perhaps a half-dozen pictures which could fit comfortably in the other two. Each offers a distinctive view of the state. An unabashed art photographer, Kanfer focuses on the former Grand Prairie of east central Illinois, a landscape a bit forbidding even in its verdant moods, one which is familiar without being homelike. Irving's Illinois (accompanied by Kristina Valaitis' economical text) offers a more comprehensively documentary vision than Kanfer's. The book spans the state from Michigan Avenue to Main Street and from corn field to log cabin. A botanist by training, Clay celebrates the nature which survives in Illinois mainly in its more remote state parks and nature preserves—an unfamiliar, even eerie Illinois of cypress swamps and stone canyons, waterfalls and forest floors. Irving portrays the Illinois that is, Kanfer shows the state as it is often imagined to be, and Clay how it used to be.
Their techniques vary. Clay uses a jumbo 4X5 view camera, Irving specializes in panoramic views, and Kanfer occasionally manipulates images so as to mimic Seurat's pointillist effects. The crucial difference between them is not equipment but sensibility. For example Clay and Kanfer agree that a photograph owes as much to the photographer's imagination as it does to the scene itself, that before a scene can be captured, it must be seen.
In his introduction to Prairie-scapes, Kanfer explains how he relies on colors, textures, lines, and moods—the essence of things rather than the things themselves—in shaping his compositions. The result is what Kanfer calls a concept.
If Kanfer aims to abstract images out of the diffuse elements of his scenes, Clay seeks to particularize them "I try to find something that's really interesting within the landscape," he says. In one scene it might be the pattern of a tree's bark, in another mushrooms pushing up through a blanket of leaves. In each case, Clay says. "Something tells me, 'That needs to be photographed.' " He shuns broad landscape shots because "there is nothing to draw one's eye into it."
Irving, interestingly, believes that his photographs take their shape as much from the viewer's imagination as from his. "If what people react to in a picture is light and shadow or the composition of shapes, it's art." he explains. "If they react to its more objective elements, it's journalism."
None of these celebrators of Illinois is a native. Irving has lived in Illinois since 1961, Kanfer since 1973, and Clay only since 1982. Each saw Illinois for the first time with an eye undulled by familiarity, and each was surprised.
"After I signed the contract to do the book." recalls Clay, a former Arizonan, "I asked my wife, 'What is there to shoot?' But I was absolutely stunned by the scenic beauty in the state." Irving's expectations were similarly low when he was asked by his publisher to turn from Vermont and Chicago (subjects of his two previous books) to Illinois. "It's so extremely flat, and there's such an overwhelming sense of space," Irving says of much of Downstate. "Ironically, that became one of my favorite places to photograph. It's almost an archetypical American landscape." Kanfer grew up in Oregon amid a landscape of obvious charm, but found that Illinois offers "a gentle, subtle beauty" to those who bother to look for it. "I think," he says, using a word not often associated with Illinois, "that this is a terribly romantic landscape." ■