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Book Review: Prairie Stories

Prairie Stories. Photographs by Terry Evans.
Published by Radius Books, 2012.
Prairie Stories
Reviewed by Tom Leininger

Prairie Stories
Photographs by Terry Evans
Radius Books, 2012. Hardbound. 176 pp., 69 color illustrations, 9-3/4x9-3/4".

Rural small towns are part of America's heritage. Seeing them now makes one wonder, how has this town survived? Who are these people? What are their lives like? Matfield Green, Kansas is one of those towns. Terry Evans has photographed in this small town for 20 years, which has resulted in Prairie Stories.

Time is as much the subject of the book as the land and the people are. From 1990 to 2010 Evans, a Chicago photographer, made pictures in and around the small town in the Flint Hills. The book focuses on seven stories inspired by the people of the town. How many people live there? According to the U.S. census, 33 in 1990 and 47 in 2010 and the city consists of .14 square miles of land.

Prairie Stories, by Terry Evans. Published by Radius Books, 2012.

Working in the documentary tradition, Evans takes advantage of the square frame to create direct images laden with mystery. Titles are placed at the end of the book, so the reader is forced to make connections and see how time has aged the people photographed. More context of who the people are and their lives would have been a welcomed addition to this beautifully made book.

Prairie Stories, by Terry Evans. Published by Radius Books, 2012.
Prairie Stories, by Terry Evans. Published by Radius Books, 2012.

Evans switches between color and black & white throughout the book. There are images like Arlene's Horse, January 1997 that are clearly meant to be in color. The portraits, like the one of Teri Treadway 1993, are clearly meant to be in black & white. While not entirely consistent, the mix works well. Consistency of palette choice in recent books forces me to note the differences.

Each story consists of portraits and aerial landscape images mixed with traditional on the ground images. The aerial images are the real strength of the book. Evans highlights the sparse landscape with formal natural leading lines and exquisite use of light, as well as the natural and manmade lines in the land.

Prairie Stories, by Terry Evans. Published by Radius Books, 2012.

Evans' ability to formally arrange light and space comes to the forefront with the panoramic images of the town, backyards and gardens. The photographs show the recent past of this place. The portraits show strong proud people whose lives are tied to this land in one way or another. Evans created a portrait of place that looks beautiful to her. Warm light dances across the land. The faces of the residents show that life is not easy on the prairie. These are not sentimental pictures of a land or time that has been lost. Instead Evans gives a document 20 years in making of place that could be passed by without a second thought given to it.—TOM LEININGER

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TOM LEININGER is a photographer and educator based in North Texas. More of his work can be found on his website.