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Illinois in Camera

Visions of an unseen nature

Nature of Illinois

Winter 1989

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's. 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 4 X 5 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 Prairiescapes, 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." ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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