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Book Review: Homeplace


Book Review Homeplace By Sarah Christianson Reviewed by Blake Andrews For a relatively small book, Sarah Christianson's Homeplace covers a lot of ground. It's an homage to family farming, an exploration of personal ancestry, a scrapbook, a sociological study of Norwegian immigrants, a love letter to North Dakota, and a long-term photography project. All of these elements are wrapped together and expressed through maps, deeds, snapshots, letters, and found photos, and of course plenty of Christianson's own photographs.
Homeplace. By Sarah Christianson.
 Daylight Books, 2013.
 
Homeplace

Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Homeplace
Photographs by Sarah Christianson
$39.95
Daylight Books, 2013. 108 pp., 10 color and 70 duotone illustrations, 10x8".

For a relatively small book, Sarah Christianson's Homeplace covers a lot of ground. It's an homage to family farming, an exploration of personal ancestry, a scrapbook, a sociological study of Norwegian immigrants, a love letter to North Dakota, and a long-term photography project. All of these elements are wrapped together and expressed through maps, deeds, snapshots, letters, and found photos, and of course plenty of Christianson's own photographs.

It's tough for such a combination to be totally seamless but Homeplace makes a worthy effort. The contents blend well, fostered by traditional narrative structure. We've come to expect photography monographs to tell a story, but Homeplace takes this aim more literally than most. Through images and short written essays Christianson relates her life story nestled in the American-Dream saga of the family farm where she was raised. That farm, passed down through four generations, has recently reached a tipping point, with no more descendants willing to manage it. Sarah Christianson, for example, has chosen photography over farming.

Homeplace. By Sarah Christianson. Daylight Books, 2013.
Homeplace. By Sarah Christianson. Daylight Books, 2013.

So what about Christianson the photographer? Her images are generally rooted, formal, quiet and simple. "The upper Midwest can be easily overlooked," she writes, and at first glance her photos might give the same impression. Their viewing requires patience. They have no fancy lighting, pyrotechnics, wide angles, or compositional tricks. Instead we see straight horizons, open skies, and waves of grain. These are photos created by someone comfortable around large slow equipment like a tractor or a view camera.

In short, they look like photos a farmer might've made. Note, that comment is meant in a good way. That's meant in the salt-of-the-earth-earnestness shucks-ma-am sort of way, not farmer-as-uncultivated-rube way. Maybe Robert Adams and Frank Gohlke were farmers in a former life? Or Misrach? Or Shore? Or perhaps a better comparison is to Kansas farm photographer Terry Evans. Christianson has even climbed into the cockpit to shoot a few Evans-style aerials. But most of the photos in Homeplace are made with two feet and tripod firmly planted.

Homeplace. By Sarah Christianson. Daylight Books, 2013.

Some of the photos in Homeplace are in fact shot by farmers. I'm referring to the snapshots, family photos, and vernacular pictures sprinkled amid explanatory text in the book's first half. This section serves as a historical archive of sorts, scattered with interesting images and factoids, and a North Dakota primer. We learn that 31 percent of North Dakota is of Norwegian ancestry, 1/3 of Norway emigrated to the U.S. over the span of a century, and all sorts of similar trivia. Christianson interweaves this cultural history with personal anecdotes. Taken together they lay the groundwork for understanding her North Dakota farm. By the time we see her photographs later in the book, their context is clear.

Homeplace. By Sarah Christianson. Daylight Books, 2013.
Homeplace. By Sarah Christianson. Daylight Books, 2013.

The fate of the Christianson family farm is undecided but the next chapter in North Dakota's economy has arrived. It's fracking. 48,000 oil wells have been drilled in recent years, and the number is growing. The Christianson family has joined the boom, selling some of their mineral rights. This is the subject of Sarah Christianson's most recent photographic project, When The Landscape Is Quiet Again. Few photographers today are so committed to one locale. "The place haunts my dreams," writes Christianson, and her photographs reflect that. "Life [in North Dakota] moves at a slower pace," she writes. It's not clear how much longer that will remain true, but for now Christianson's photographs describe that world.—BLAKE ANDREWS
BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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