Four years ago, my wife and I bought an old house in Madison, Wisconsin. That decision triggered all kinds of new experiences, but it also confirmed an old, familiar one — that we would be, for the foreseeable future, making our home in the Midwest. I didn’t always think that would be the case.
When I was younger, I genuinely believed that you had to live on one of the coasts to find creative success. I grew up in a small farm town, and for most of my childhood I was sure that someday I would move far away, to a big city, to “make it.” Sticking around was a real struggle for me in my 20s and 30s. For a variety of reasons, I stayed, and though it’s taken me a while to realize it, I’ve come to see that the Midwest is actually a perfect place to make a creative life.
I’m a Midwesterner at heart and, in recent years, I’ve taken an interest in artists who are making their homes here. So, when the James Watrous Gallery approached me to curate a photography exhibition, I knew immediately that it should focus on imagemakers who have decided to put down roots in this part of the country.
The show is called New Midwest Photography, and it opens in Madison, Wisconsin on September 7.
The goal of this is exhibition is to showcase the variety of talent living and working in this part of the world and, ultimately, to recognize the American Midwest as the vibrant hub of photographic practice that it is. And, of course, it gives me an opportunity to collaborate with creative people I admire which is always the best part of these projects.
This is an amazingly talented group: 5 men and 5 women from Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Ohio. Each of our them uses Instagram, so their feeds are a perfect entrée to the exhibition. Below, some brief artist profiles and links to their IG feeds. (You can follow me at FlakPhoto.)
When my wife and I decided to buy into the Midwest—to secure a small piece of land and settle in for a bit—I realized that something about living here was important enough to hold onto. There is a lot to love about the Midwest: the slow pace, friendly people, and beautiful landscape. It’s easy to forget that this is an ideal place to make a creative, fulfilling life. In a way, that’s the point of New Midwest Photography: to prove that great things can happen when you know where you belong.
Jess T. Dugan
Identity and social connection are driving forces in Jess T. Dugan’s work, and she has long been drawn to making portraits in pursuit of a deeper understanding of these human experiences. Working within the framework of queer experience, Dugan’s portraits examine the intersection between private, individual self-concept and the search for connection with others. She photographs people in their homes and personal spaces using medium and large-format cameras to encourage a deep, sustained engagement, resulting in an intimate portrait of contemporary America.
Jess lives in St. Louis, Missouri. Follow her @jesstdugan
Dave Jordano has been making pictures for nearly fifty years. After a long and successful commercial photography career, he began making personal work in 2000. Since then Jordano has produced several long-term documentary projects, all of them focused on the Midwest. His first book about Detroit, Detroit: Unbroken Down, was published in 2016. That work documented the lives of the city’s struggling residents. His new project, Detroit Nocturne, looks at the places in which they live and work. Jordano is currently producing a series of night photographs in the Chicago area.
Dave lives in Chicago, Illinois. Follow him @dave.jordano
Barry Phipps is one of those creative polymaths who does a little bit of everything. Since graduating from the Kansas City Art Institute in 1990, he has been making art in the disciplines of music, fashion, and photography. After living in Chicago for more than twenty years, Phipps and his wife relocated to the comparatively small town of Iowa City. That move gave him a fresh set of eyes and inspired a project propelled by a desire to understand his new surroundings. Phipps’ vivid compositions look like so many Midwestern places, and the beautiful mystery of these fading communities embodies our 21st century moment. His book, Between Gravity and What Cheer: Iowa Photographs, is available from The University of Iowa Press.
Barry lives in Iowa City, Iowa. Follow him @barry_phipps
Sometimes an outsider’s eye can show us things we take for granted. Jason Vaughn had never visited the Midwest until he met his wife, a Wisconsin native. When they moved here a few years later, Vaughn realized that rural places were fertile territory for photographic exploration. His latest project, Driftless, is a meditation on his experience raising a small family in the state’s Driftless Area. Vaughn’s images are contemplative reflections on the stages of transition and motion that we all experience. They capture a moment in the life of a young family, the tension between wanderlust and nostalgia, and the comfort that comes from being free to explore. Driftless will be published by TBW Books in September.
Jason lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Follow him @jason_vaughn
Clarissa Bonet grew up in Florida, a warm, lush, tropical environment with a car-culture way of life. Eight years ago, she moved to Chicago and was struck by her newfound environment. The city landscape felt wholly foreign—the vast swaths of concrete that covered the city surfaces, being surrounded by anonymous individuals she would never see again, and the sheer expanse of the urban place. To understand this new landscape and her role within it, she started making images, which led to two ongoing bodies of work, Stray Light and City Space. Her moody images are inspired by street photography and the staged compositions of contemporary artists like Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Kelli Connell, and Hannah Starkey. The results are visual experiences— not documents— of the city. She plans to someday publish these works in a book.
Clarissa lives in Chicago, Illinois. Follow her @clarissabonet
Julie Renée Jones
Julie Renée Jones learned about photography from her father, a practicing amateur imagemaker. But the portraits he made of her weren’t traditional Say cheese! images— he captured stolen moments and emotional expressions that suggested there was more than meets the eye. Jones went on to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree in photography and during that time, developed two similar yet dueling bodies of work: Thirteen and Umbra. Both deal with the role that family and childhood play in understanding ourselves, imagination and its power to transcend and reveal reality, and the specifics of growing up in the suburban Midwest. Jones’ images are creative visions that are equal parts performance and play, and she conceals conventional photographic reality with optical tricks, extreme light, and vivid color.
Julie lives in Dayton, Ohio. Follow her @julie.renee.jones
Many of us have considered leaving our Midwest homeplace for greener pastures. Some of us go, but many who do find the urge to return a powerful calling. Tytia Habing grew up in rural Illinois, spent most of her adult life in the Cayman Islands and, after her son was born, realized she needed to come back to the farm. This rural lifestyle plays a crucial part in her ongoing series, Tharin, a documentary portrait of her son. Habing holds degrees in both horticulture and landscape architecture and those studies imbued her with a reverence for the natural world which is on full display in her luminous black and white images. Her photography is a visual expression of the free-range way she raises her children, a lifestyle she feels is quickly fading. She is currently producing a new series focused on the natural beauty of Midwest winters.
Tytia lives in Watson, Illinois. Follow her @tytiahabing
Garry Winogrand famously said, “I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs.” You can’t help but think that Jon Horvath is compelled by a similar drive: To show us the world not only as it is, but how it looks to his camera. Horvath’s eye is charged with wonder. Like an all-seeing mystic, he embraces the act of photographic wandering, seeking moments of discovery so he can share these insights with us. Horvath’s images escape the confines of words, and their meanings are open-ended by design. His ongoing series, Wide Eyed, is a repository of personal observations, glimpses, and passing thoughts about the things he encounters on his travels. What these pictures mean is entirely up to the spectator, and their mystery is part of the fun. He teaches at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design.
Jon lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Follow him @jonhorvath
Sometimes leaving home gives you a fresh perspective on where you come from. Nathan Pearce was born in Fairfield, Illinois, a rural farming community in the southern part of the state. Like a lot of his friends, he couldn’t wait to leave his small town and, when he was eighteen, he set out to see America. He spent several years living on both coasts and decided to return to Fairfield when he was twenty-five. What he discovered was a place that was far more interesting than he’d remembered it and one he was compelled to photograph. Pearce makes his living working at an auto repair shop but his passion is making pictures, and he does that every day with small, handheld cameras. His primary focus is Midwest Dirt, a series of monochrome images that document the people and places that surround him. These are personal pictures, and they reflect his changing perspective on the place he calls home. Pearce is developing a new book to be published by Deadbeat Press later this year.
Nathan lives in Fairfield, Illinois. Follow him @pearcephoto
Lindley Warren Mickunas
Lindley Warren Mickunas has been making images for fifteen years—nearly half of her life. Since 2015, she’s been shooting The Meadows, a meditation on her family members and their troubled history. Hers are quiet, still images and the process of making them has provided a vehicle for rebuilding broken family bonds. In addition to her imagemaking, Warren is an editor and curator who leverages digital platforms to reach global audiences. She is the founder of several publications including The Ones We Love and The Photographic Dictionary, and earlier this year released The Reservoir, a quarterly web magazine focused on pictures and politics.
Lindley lives in Iowa City, Iowa. Follow her @lindleywarrenmickunas