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In Print: the sky above, the corn below

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It is arguable that enjoying the farmlands of the midwest is an esoteric pursuit and something of an acquired taste, that no one can love a place so flat and seemingly featureless with the same passion reserved for rolling hills or rocky crags or crashing waves. You could even call it an intellectual game, a matter of learning to appreciate little dips in the road, the mild slope made by a glacial moraine, the foot-wide creek running between cornfields.

Gary Irving would probably term it a matter more for the senses than the intellect. In his latest book, Beneath an Open Sky, Irving, a travel photographer who lives in Wheaton, teaches us that loving the landscapes of Illinois is a matter of opening our senses to the beauty that plays about the flattest field, above the most monotonous spread of corn.

The writer Michael Martone puts it this way: "The way I feel about the Midwest is the way my skin feels and the way I feel my own skin--in layers and broad stripes and shades, in planes and in the periphery. The Midwest as hide, an organ of sense and not power, delicate and coarse at the same time. The Midwest transmits in fields and waves. It is the place of sense. It sometimes differentiates heat and cold, pain and pleasure, but most often registers the constant bombardment, the monotonous feel of feeling. Living here on the great flat plain teaches you a soft touch, since sensation arrives in huge sheets, stretched tight, layer upon layer, another kind of flood."

Beneath an Open Sky (University of Illinois Press, $39.95) consists entirely of photographs made with a panoramic camera, which produces images almost three times as wide as they are high. Most of them are reproduced on full-page spreads in the large size they deserve.

Some of these photos are the sorts of surprises most people don't associate with Illinois farmlands--the little woods by the creek out back where the willow and cardinal flower grow, or the early morning fog drifting off a small lake and wreathing the dried leaves of oak trees. Irving's most enduring images, though, are those that recognize the obvious: the prairie is all about lines. Or curves, rounded so gently that they look like straight lines, like the endless sweep of the horizon itself.

A panoramic camera is an ideal tool for teaching appreciation of those lines. On first glance, many of Irving's photographs seem unexceptional. The horizon stabs straight across the entire frame, sky above and field below, cornstalks to the right and left. It could be a conventional photo with the top and bottom cropped off. But look more closely--the light at the two ends of the frame is entirely different. One end is backlighted, while the other enjoys frontal sunshine. There are often other differences too--a rosier sky on the right, more blue on the left. What initially seemed two-dimensional achieves depth. The photos are, in fact, four-dimensional, because their angle of view is so wide that to see the same breadth in person you'd have to turn your head to look around. Here you can see all at once more than you would out in the open.

When I watched TV as a child, I often craned my neck trying to look at an angle into the console beyond the edge of the frame, to see what might lie beyond what we were supposed to see. Irving's photos, in a way, allow you to do that, to look beyond what would be the limit of conventional photos or the view you have from your own eyes. Almost without knowing it, we see great stretches of land. And by looking carefully at the subtleties of his images, we can learn to see--to sense--the subtleties of the land itself.

What defines these photos is often the persistent horizontals, not only of the horizon and of rows of corn, but also of highways, railroad tracks, rivers. Even the no-nonsense siding of those typical midwestern farmhouses--weather-beaten planks fading from white to gray--accentuates the horizontal. The objects that fight back against all that gravity--barns, cottonwood trees, telephone poles, grain silos--are all the more eye-catching because they have to contend with that dual, timeless immensity of sky and soil.

It doesn't take something as big as a barn to catch the eye, though. Irving is a master at drawing the viewer's attention to the small nuances of landscape. He knows that the light of a low winter sun can lend elevations of only a few inches their own sort of grandeur; the rippled, drifted snow on a field of stubble reflects the yellow of the sun and the blue of the sky and takes on an elaborate geography of its own. Frost lining tangled grass stems and corn husks creates another intricate geometry.

What the photos are about, though, more than these details themselves, is the way the light plays on them. An open sky is not an empty sky. We are reminded that a sunset is much more than a red ball sinking in the west. It is a play of color across the entire sky, and Irving's frame is wide enough to show us a large expanse of that canvas. The most monotonous view--of a plowed field in early spring, say, with no plants yet to soften the harsh straight lines of furrows and tractor tracks--comes alive when we look at the varied clouds above and the golden sunlight angling across the soil. Many of the shots were taken at dawn or dusk, and they show the sort of light effects that last only a minute or two before full day or night sets in. The unreal lavender and salmon hues of early morning, and the vivid greens of springtime growth, make it hard to believe that Irving used no color filters. A hazy view of an early morning country road in Ogle County looks like one of the luminous, sun-dappled landscapes of the Hudson River school.

These photos are very much images of stillness, of those moments at dawn and dusk and high midsummer noon when time seems to stand still. You seldom see anything moving, whether people, cars, or even breaths of wind. Each view, you know, will soon be erased by nightfall, clouds, the next breeze.

Many of Irving's photos depict landscapes that could be from the 1950s, or '40s, or '30s. The houses are wooden and weather-beaten. The storefronts are brick--no chrome or plastic or glitz here. The roads are blue highways, seemingly little traveled. Seldom is there anything modern. Yet there is an eerie photo of an overgrown farmhouse near Naperville, with a couple of shiny new office towers peeking over the horizon like science-fiction aliens. You can probably guess which building looks more a part of the landscape.

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