While visiting my home state of Illinois in 2009, I drove to our rural family farm to spend the day with my 97 year old paternal Grandfather. We passed the time watching old slides of world travels, sharing a meal, and fixing up a 1937 Zeiss Ikon camera our family had found in my wife’s recently deceased Great Uncle’s house. I asked my Grandfather if I could take his portrait, I guessed on the exposure, and put that test roll of film in my pocket fully expecting none of the pictures to turn out.
8 months later in the dead of winter, I saw the roll sitting on my desk still. I threw it in with a bunch of film I was sending to my photo lab mainly just out of curiosity. Sure enough what came back were 2 beautiful portraits of my Grandfather and another 10 images of the farm itself. All the memories of that day together came flooding back. The sun, the humidity, the creaking sounds of the house, the smell of fresh air. And in my hands I held a print of my Grandfather taken on the very farm he was born on 97 years prior.
I realized the importance of PLACE in photographs. How PLACE is also a character in our lives and parts of our stories. A pretty family picture is nice, but the truly valuable photographs of people are when they are in their space. I decided to take 2 weeks off the next fall and drive from Denver, to St. Louis, through the farms of Illinois, to Chicago, up through Michigan, and all the way around Lake Michigan before heading back to Colorado. I spent my time visiting family, friends, and even strangers I met. I photographed them in their homes, in their favorite places, and just listened to their stories. It was the scariest and most defining project of my life. I’ve never grown so much, never understood my work to the depths I do now, and never had such a clear vision on what direction my work should take.
On my trip I photographed a family where their child needed to eat through a feeding tube, someone that had applied to the FBI, someone growing up in a Middle Eastern family in middle America, a NY Times featured artist living in an Airstream in the middle of the woods, a young woman that had surgery to remove pre-cancerous cells, my maternal Grandmother who shared with me that my Grandfather who died when I was 16 ignored his doctors advice to come in and be checked out while cancer was unknowingly spreading, and a young family who’s daughter spent time in the NICU.
This risk of taking intentional time away from paying work, stepping out of my comfort zone, and leaving my family for a time paid off in life-long ways that I never would have expected.