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In Print: the atmospheric photographs of Larry Kanfer

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Larry Kanfer was not expecting much of the midwest when his family moved from Oregon to Champaign in 1973. "When I first got here I thought it was the ugliest place," says Kanfer, who was in high school at the time. "It was flat, it was just corn and soybeans, and I wondered why anyone would live here."

He stuck it out, though. He attended college. Then he founded a commercial photography business. Sometimes, just for the fun of it, he took pictures of the central Illinois landscape and offered them for sale. "In the late 1970s, when lots of people were moving to Texas and California, people said, 'Why would I want to buy a picture of a cornfield?'" Kanfer recalls.

Since then Kanfer's audience has grown along with his own appreciation of what has become his home landscape. Now he's the proprietor of a Champaign gallery where he sells almost exclusively his own landscapes. In 1987 the University of Illinois Press published Prairiescapes, a compilation of his photographs of rural Illinois and Indiana. This fall another collection, On Second Glance, follows the first.

The book's title is telling. The Corn Belt landscapes in On Second Glance were put together with an eye for subtlety. It hardly contains a single scene that on first glance looks particularly dramatic or sublime. At first they just seem to be workaday photos of a working landscape: cornfields, soybeans, quiet country roads, solitary farm buildings. To generalize severely, there are two basic sorts of photographs: close-in shots that focus on one or several details, and broad vistas that emphasize the openness of the prairie. All but five are in color.

Now I have to admit that some of them photographs have remained workaday to me. A number of images early in the book seem to typify the romantic pastoral ideal: narrow country lanes, green tunnels of vegetation, quiet farmhouses in the sunshine. Several scenes appear hazy, in soft focus, like scenes dimly remembered from childhood. They remind me of postcard views: nice to look at for a little while, but ultimately forgettable.

Kanfer is very deliberate in portraying this sort of remembered past. Them is not a single person visible in detail. And though the landscape is covered with human traces, they point back in time as much as to the present. Some of the farmhouses could be standing in the 1950s, or the 1920s. We see no strip malls, Wal-Marts, or interstate highways.

Still, time takes its toll. Paint chips from faded walls. A high metal fence bends like wet cardboard. Tawny grass reclaims the railroad tracks. Some of the photos--such as those showing shuttered gas stations and a close-up titled Better Times its subject a chipped and rusting doorcomment on the hard economic times that have fallen on many farm communities, but in the absence of the people involved they do so only obliquely.

The strength of On Second Glance lies in Kanfer's attention to atmospherics. The lack of people fills the landscape with a sense of immanence, of waiting. What we are waiting on is the weather. The land itself changes with settlement patterns, but the sky remains ever open. (One witty photo shows that the sky does change. Its title is Cross-Country, and the viewer assumes it refers to the long stretch of snowcovered field between the camera and a distant grove of trees, until the two faint contrails of high-flying jets become apparent.)

"I keep an eye on the weather a lot," says Kanfer. "I usually like to go out in the early morning and late in the evening. The midwest is beautiful in a subtle way, in a chronological way. In the mountains you have geographical beauty Here, the fronts come through. You can see them come through and feel the wind. It's the changes that are so beautiful. And they're easy to miss. You have to look for clues. The challenge of finding that beauty is a lot of fun."

And so the main subject of many of them photos is the big sky. "If I want to show forever," says the photographer, "I put in very little land, and use a lot of sky. I include one or several objects to draw the viewer back into the frame." Kanfer shows us a number of different skies: the booming clouds of a cold front, the haze of summer, the golden light of early morning, ragged winter storm clouds, puffy white cumulus clouds against a deep blue, the flat metal sky of winter.

The resulting openness can be at once glorious and oppressive. One can sense why, on encountering all that space, the early settlers proceeded to tame the prairie as quickly as possible, laying on it their grid of fields, fences, lanes, and railroads.

Kanfer's cover shot is one of my favorites. It's a broad vista of distant barns, telephone poles, and copses of trees. In the foreground a single old, white gas pump leans a little crookedly over the manicured green lawn surrounding it. The lawn stretches absurdly between two fields of winter stubble. What's that lawn doing there? the viewer wonders, and why is it maintained so carefully? The big blue sky, faintly traced with subtle gray clouds, takes up the top two-thirds of the image, and it answers: because the ground is the only thing that can be tamed.

On Second Glance costs $29.95 and is widely available at Chicago bookstores, or you can call 800-545-4703 to order a copy directly from the University of Illinois Press.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy University of Illinois Press.

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