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David Plowden sheds light on the midwestern prairie

In an austere new collection, Heartland, the longtime photographer celebrates the plain—and the plains.

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"The Prairies and Plains," Walt Whitman wrote, "while less stunning at first sight, last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest." David Foster Wallace loved the way that, along midwestern highways, "the corn starts just past the breakdown lanes and goes right to the sky's hem." Even Barack Obama has praised "the flat, checkerboard fields of western Illinois."

Those are three pretty great writers. Yet you could spot each one a thousand words and they still wouldn't measure up to a picture by David Plowden. The distinguished photographer, who recently turned 81, has always documented the things we overlook. In his new book, Heartland: The Plains and the Prairie, it's the midwest's rolling and repetitive landscapes. "We're very used to seeing mountains and seacoasts," Plowden says. "We're not as familiar with looking at Kansas."

Plowden grew up in New York City, but found it noisy and crowded: "You couldn't see the sky." So after putting in time at various east-coast institutions—boarding school, Yale—he went to work for Great Northern Railroad. In Minnesota, Plowden began studying the region's rural topography. "I really fell in love with it," he says. "When I quit the railroad, I started trying to think of a way to get back."

That way was photography. Over the course of his career Plowden befriended Walker Evans, won numerous grants and awards, and published more than 20 books—many of them what he calls his "big expedition books," where he crisscrossed the country, capturing a central theme like bridges or barns. Plowden has shot around 15 miles of film, most of which he stores in his Winnetka home.

Back in 1964, though, he was still a young photographer on assignment for American Heritage. The magazine wanted him to retrace the route of Lincoln's funeral train, and Plowden was trying to keep to its original schedule. Outside of Funk's Grove, Illinois, he found himself photographing a hazy sunrise. "That is when I suddenly discovered the flatland," he remembers, "how difficult it was to photograph, but also how beautiful it was." The picture from Funk's Grove is the first one in Heartland.

With his second wife, Sandra, Plowden drove thousands of miles between 2003 and 2011, revisiting places he'd explored and photographed many times, searching for new shots. The pictures in Heartland are reproduced on thick stock and presented in a spare and elegant design. In one, the wind looks like it's ruffling through a field of wheat; in another, a country road is so motionless you suspect it's still frozen that way today. Silos, grain elevators, and trees lined up in orderly windbreaks all punctuate the sky.

"We have this little interface down at the bottom that we live on," Plowden says. "We live under the sky." In many photos it's the sky that's most striking. A constant in Plowden's work has been his use of natural light. In fact it's all he uses; one advantage to midwestern farmland is that there's plenty of light to work with. The best light, according to Plowden, comes just before or just after a tornado, and there's at least one picture in Heartland where you can see a funnel cloud beginning to take shape. "After I got that one, I said to my wife, 'Perhaps we should leave,'" he recalls with a deep laugh.

Plowden no longer moves as well as he used to, and arthritis has made it impossible for him to develop his film by hand. He hasn't photographed since 2011; in fact, the last pictures he's taken are collected in Heartland. Still, he's bought a new Canon digital camera—he's not ready to give up on making more pictures, even if that means switching to digital as an octogenarian. "I would like to do some portraiture, some interiors," he says. "I don't think I'm going to be chasing tornadoes anymore. But I wish I could."

That means Heartland will probably be his last big book. At the end of our conversation I ask him about the title. "Heartland," after all, is only a tick or two away from "real America." After spending decades in this region, does he worry about romanticizing it—its landscape and its residents? "There's an insularity to it," Plowden allows, "but there's a neighborliness to it too. This book is a celebration."

Yet one measure of the power of Plowden's work is in its ability to both celebrate and condemn. There's a photograph of McLean County, Illinois—a later one, from 2008. The sky is crystalline, the horizon straight. In the middle of it sits an abandoned farmhouse, with natural light filtering through what used to be its windows. Here is a picture that captures how the heartland can be hard and lonely—the kind of place that brings out the best in some people, but not in others.

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