Picture the landscape of downstate Illinois--the view from the interstate anywhere south of Joliet. What landscape? you say. It's just flat ground and cornfields dotted here and there with grain elevators and farmhouses with their obligatory six trees. No rippling lakes, no cascading waterfalls. No hill high enough for a good bobsled run. Not even enough rocks to build a stone wall.
If you think that this is a land without "scape," take a look at Larry Kanfer's Prairiescapes. When Kanfer talks about the "endless beauty" of the Illinois flatlands in his introduction to the book, he's not making a joke. His photographs take the countryside we know all too well and reveal it as poetry.
Consider, for example, one of the drabbest scenes Illinois can offer: late winter--February, probably--mild enough to melt the snow but not warm enough to melt the heart. A dank, gray day, the air thickened with fog, water in the ruts of a muddy country lane. Kanfer's photo Springtime in Mahomet makes that sort of day worth remembering: the stillness, the chill that seeps through our boots, the squelch of mud, a farmstead barely discernible through the fog.
That is the magic Kanfer brews from the Illinois landscape. He takes the everyday things we've seen so often we don't see them at all, arranges and frames them so that we catch our breath and think, Yes, I've been there, I remember that, and it is beautiful.
Kanfer, whose photographs have been displayed in several national art galleries and at the Art Institute, works out of his studio and gallery in Champaign. But he's not a native midwesterner; he came here from Portland, Oregon, in 1973 to become an architecture student at the U. of I. Maybe his outsider's eye helped him see the Illinois landscape as something worth remarking.
Kanfer's pictures are certainly not "Illinois booster" photos; they are not the placid, bucolic scenes of cows, combines, and corn that adorn Farm Bureau calendars. Kanfer uses the austere lines of the roads and fields that reach beyond our sight, isolated and abandoned farmsteads, a single tree against a departing storm to make us feel the large aloneness that is so much a part of the prairie.
Of course, there isn't much true prairie left in Illinois. Kanfer makes a mistake in captioning two pictures Prairie Grass and Prairie Flowers; there are no native prairie plants in either.
In fact, Kanfer's photographs portray a landscape that is rural but not wild, the result of an interweaving of nature and technology. Its forms are no more natural than those of a Japanese rock garden, yet they are visually satisfying. In one picture the straight horizon may echo the lines of fences or corn rows; in another it may be punctuated by the sharp edges of a house and barn or set off by the tracery of a hedgerow. Behind these lines looms the midwestern sky at sunset, with storm clouds, in a blizzard. In Tornado Watch, the elements of horizon, snow fence, bare field, bare trees, and menacing sky meld into a quintessential image of the harshness of an early Illinois spring. The sky, the horizon, and the sense of vast spaces may be the truest remnants we have of the great prairie, and they are the ones Kanfer evokes most tellingly.
In most of Kanfer's photographs, the mood is somber, minor key. He prefers the wintry side of the year with its clear lines, its browns, blacks, and grays. He responds to the desolateness of farmland against the horizon, a snow fence in a world of white, a stop sign at night.
There are no people visible in this world that is so molded by their presence. A shovel leans by a barn door, laundry blows on a line, a chair waits on a porch. An empty road, an abandoned house. Even the Amish buggy trotting down a dirt road has no visible driver. This emptiness is as true to the Illinois countryside as its flat horizon.
There is a problem with looking at 101 pictures of midwestern landscape one after another. Confronted with so many, we tend to hurry from one to the next, stopping only briefly at one that catches our eye--in the same way that we drive through the countryside. But if we pause to look again, to venture into a scene he shows us, we get the pleasure of a double take--the "aha experience of discovery" that Kanfer describes in his introduction.
Prairiescapes is in stock at Kroch's & Brentano's (29 S. Wabash, 332-7500) and can be ordered from other bookstores. $29.95.