Minnesota photographer captures the prairieby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
Many people dismiss the North Dakota plains as an uninspiring landscape. But Moorhead photographer, Wayne Gudmundson, has spent 35 years photographing the prairie and a retrospective of his work opens this week.
Moordhead, Minn. — Wayne Gudmundson grew up in Moorhead and was not particularly impressed with the landscape that surrounded him.
"You know, I only wanted to see the North Dakota landscape in my rear view mirror as I left it," Gudmundson recalls.
After a stint in the Navy, Gudmundson studied photography in college and started taking closeups of landscape. Things like weathered boards on abandoned homesteads, or swirling snowdrifts caught his eye.
When he started teaching at Minnesota State University Moorhead, Gudmundson continued to wander the prairie and he started to step back and look at the horizon.
"This landscape I wanted to get away from started to creep in. I like the Emerson quote, 'The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We're never tired as long as we can see far enough.' I always liked that," Gudmundson says.
As he explored the prairie landscape, Gudmundson also began to consider the plains people -- immigrants like his grandparents, who tried to claim the prairie.
Gudmundson has enjoyed lush summer afternoons on quiet hillsides. He's also been caught in terrifying blizzards. Those experiences cause him to contemplate how the prairie landscape has shaped the people who lived there.
"They came out to this flatness. They knew they wouldn't see any of their relatives again, and they had no communication and they had to make it through the winter," he says. "There's numerous accounts of people literally going screaming off into the blizzards, never to return. There's still that openness and the suggestion of the power of that landscape."
Gudmundson says there's a subtlety and a sort of wry humor about the prairie, which he tries to capture in his photos. That also relflects the sensibility of those who live on the prairie.
Gudmundson says his prairie landscapes elicit an interesting range of responses.
"The people who are of this landscape look at the photographs and they're really interested to know, 'Where was this taken? My brother-in-law has a friend who lives there, or I've driven through there.' But the further away you go, and this is an odd thing to me, the more exotic this seemingly plain landscape becomes," Gudmundson says.
"I remember showing some of these images to a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and I watched him look at the photographs and he became visibly nervous," Gudmundson recalls. "He said, 'The town's right behind you, right?' And I said, 'No. It looks different, but it's pretty much the same in all four directions.' He couldn't viscerally digest this kind of image."
When he packs his vintage large-format camera, black and white film and a thermos of coffee and takes to the back roads of North Dakota, Gudmundson says he's not looking for an "Oh, my God" photograph. He's looking for balance, detail and sometimes the marks left by passing humans -- what he would call a considered view.
"In some ways the photographs that work well are like visual poems," he says. "Because you have a setting where something occurs, and done well, you evoke feeling based on some ideas."
Wayne Gudmundson has photographed landscapes around the world. His work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Art and the U.S. embassy in Iceland.
But he always returns to the North Dakota prairie where his grandparents settled.
The retrospective exhibit will be on display at the Plains Art Museum through Jan. 7, 2008.
- Morning Edition, 09/27/2007, 6:47 a.m.