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In Print: Frank Gohlke's elevators to heaven



It happens that grain elevators explode. Every once in a while you hear about a huge silo in Minnesota or Kansas that blows up like a puffball in a summer rain. It's not the sort of accident you'd expect--what could be more stable, more earthbound, than grain?--but it turns out that the weight of all that wheat or another crop in an elevator can generate high temperatures in which grain dust can become about as volatile as gasoline. When an elevator explodes it reminds us, briefly, that the grain is as much a product of air and sun as of soil.

Fortunately, Frank Gohlke is around to teach us the same lesson without that sort of danger and inconvenience. Gohlke, who now resides in Massachusetts, is a landscape photographer who lived in Minneapolis for most of the 1970s and '80s. His new book, Measure of Emptiness: Grain Elevators in the American Landscape, showcases a body of work he started in 1972 and completed in 1977 to memorialize the towering structures that he found not only graphically compelling but also emblematic of the midwestern landscape.

The book's 45 crisp black-and-white plates trace the evolution of the photographer's own view of grain elevators. Gohlke began photographing them when he moved in 1971 to a Minneapolis apartment that overlooked the Midway, where the Twin Cities' largest concentration of elevators was located. The book's first plates are close-ups of rounded silos in which the play of light and shadow creates almost abstract compositions, as when straight power lines cast curved shadows on an elevator wall.

As Gohlke worked, he became more and more interested in the elevators' context, in how they fit into the larger midwestern landscape. The structures (first built in Chicago in the 1840s) are, of course, used to store grain; they are called elevators because the grain is raised up inside, so that it can flow out again--into trucks, railroad cars, or ships--by gravity alone. But Gohlke came to think that their height reflected more than utilitarian ends. He began traveling farther afield to photograph elevators and their surroundings all over the midwest.

Flip a few pages and you see the results: photographs of elevators either surrounded by verdant countryside or towering over small towns only a few blocks square. In a typical Gohlke image the grain elevator's silos may be the only rounded forms in a landscape of unrelieved straight lines: roads, railroad tracks, and power lines all shoot toward the flat horizon in perfect one- or two-point perspective.

Le Corbusier called grain elevators "cathedrals of the prairies," and Gohlke's cover photo--of the Wolcott and Lincoln elevator near Wellington, Kansas--proves that notion to be no mere intellectual conceit. The dead-straight horizon, as in almost all of these photographs, hovers near the center of the frame (the plates are all perfectly square, too, as if to emphasize that views on the prairie are always half sky and half earth). The elevator is in the mid-distance, beyond a huge plowed field. Its architecture almost exactly mimics that of a church, a row of rounded silos forming the nave. The tower at one end must be over 100 feet high and lacks only a pointed steeple. At the opposite end is a large, round, squat silo whose pointed roof turns it into a perfect baptistry (the conveyor belt connecting its tip to the older, higher silos is reminiscent of flying buttresses). Even the stonemasons' shacks you see around a Gothic cathedral are echoed by the tiny one-story buildings clustered around the tower. In fact, filling that elevator with grain is a task not unlike raising a stone structure into the sky against all physical probability.

Gohlke's later photographs back even farther away until the elevators become small white slashes reaching up from the horizon (which, as the photographer writes in his introduction, is the way a distant plains town is first seen from the road). Then the elevators disappear entirely and there is only the sky over empty plowed fields or full rows of corn. The viewer searches the horizon in vain for that telltale white slash. The photographer has shown us that in this quintessentially agricultural landscape (and economy), the elevator is an intermediary between the earth and the sky, a reminder that both soil and sun are needed to grow the grain that fills it. If that doesn't make it a church, what does?

Measure of Emptiness: Grain Elevators in the American Landscape ($59.95 hardcover, $29.95 paper) is published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

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