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I had an idyllic youth as an Iowa farm boy, but as soon as I could scrape together a few bucks after college, I rushed from the endless flatness of the Midwest to the surreal topography of Moab, Utah. Many photographers repeat this journey now. They don’t come out West to stay necessarily, but few people sign up for photo workshops based in Illinois or Kansas. Kansas, in fact, is the least visited state by tourists of every stripe. The truth is, few photographers think about this area as a photographic subject at all (for our purposes here, an area bounded by the Appalachian Mountains, the Great Lakes, Southern forests and swamps, and the Great Plains). Has there ever been a photo from Nebraska on the cover of OP? I doubt it. Our greatest landscape photographers eschewed the area also—there’s no Philip Hyde Iowa portfolio, and where’s the Adams Indiana collection?
After many years in the Southwest, I started to make return visits to my former home with a camera. The lack of in-your-face vistas, the subtlety of a mostly tamed land and the undiscovered treasures of the area are a wonderful contrast to the desert wilderness of the Four Corners and the photo work I’ve done there. I soon found that the Midwest’s greatest photo attractions might be few, but they’re exciting: the biggest rivers, the world’s most violent weather, tiny islands of flower-filled meadows, fall color as good as that in the Northeast, and the barns, mills and grain fields that exude Americana. I also found the friendliest and most helpful people anywhere to assist me when I skidded off a rain-soaked road or needed directions to the waterfall on their back 40.
Autumn falls in morning light, La Salle Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois.
The biggest payoff in photographing the heartland is the irony that, at a major overlook of the mighty Mississippi River—an American classic in every sense, surrounded by cities with millions of people—you’re likely to be alone at dawn. I never fight for a tripod spot in this part of the country. While shooting in the Midwest, you may be able to obtain shots that are unique and beautiful, but not on every other photographer’s bucket list.
One thing you won’t get visiting this region is the clarified air of the West. There’s usually too much humidity to get anywhere close to that, but this moisture also produces sunsets and sunrises of heroic qualities. The low topography can work in your favor, however. In Utah, the sun has to clear at least 5,000 feet of terrain for a sunrise appearance. In Indiana, that’s only 1,000 feet, so though the sun may not be as powerful, it can be utilized sometimes earlier or later during the day. I use the same techniques on the prairie that I use in the mountains and deserts: shooting early and late with changing weather, and making multiple visits to favored areas.
Icy trees at dawn, Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, Iowa.
Midwestern “treasures,” the little-known but impressive subjects, are harder to find in a place where natural areas are islands surrounded by civilization. Somehow, this makes stumbling onto a natural arch, a pool of spinning leaves or a prosaic barn that much more satisfying. Also, nobody has, or probably will, publish a full-color guidebook on photographing Ohio. The things you find, you find on your own, and sometimes, though often small in scale, they can be large in impact and beauty. Though national parks are few here, state parks have taken up the slack, providing protection to some truly remarkable subjects. With the big vistas harder to find, landscape photographers are more likely to concentrate on intimate landscapes—small pieces of the big pie—in the style of the great Eliot Porter.
Summer Joe Pye weed by the Missouri River at sunrise, Snyder Bend Park, Iowa.
Without that guidebook, where should a photographer begin? Certainly, the areas of America’s great central river arteries are good spots to start. The Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio rivers have many overlooks that communicate the size and beauty of these monstrous gestures of the land. Indiana and Ohio, especially, are fall color dreams, devoid of the huge masses of people visiting and photographing in New England. World-class flower displays can cover the prairies from spring until fall. In Iowa, I lucked into a fabulous bloom of American lotus flowers along the Missouri River. Wading into the cold water with bare feet and tripod under early sunrise light, I watched, spellbound as one of Ulysses’ men, as the lotus flowers began to quickly open when the sun hit them directly, producing monstrous yellow blooms. Nature gives photographers so many unexpected gifts, and Middle America is a great place to find them.
Reeds along the Platte River during an autumn sunrise, Sandy Channel State Recreation Area, near Kearney, Nebraska.
The weather of the Midwest is legendary, with crazy skies, blizzards, torrential rains, ice storms, spellbinding lightning and very dangerous thunderstorms. If you spend much time shooting in this area, chances are, you’ll experience some of these events. Most highly prized of these weather phenomena are tornados, which occur here more prolifically than any place in the world. There’s no completely safe way to see and photograph tornados, but your best chance is always with an experienced storm-chasing tour. Research your tour company carefully, as your life may depend on their skills and judgment. If you run into a tornado on your own, as I have, don’t be afraid to seek shelter at the nearest farmhouse. When this happened to me, the farmer took me and my family into his storm cellar and parked my camper in his barn to protect it from hail.
Having experienced both tornadoes and ice storms (also a dangerous weather condition), I think ice storms are more amazing in some ways. Especially if you can drive (the roads may be very slick and have downed power lines) and can venture out after the sun is out and the storm has passed, you won’t find a more Disneyesque Frozen landscape. All trees and outdoor objects seem to be jewel-encrusted, and the world is totally transformed into a glistening wonderland. It’s a magical event unlike anything you’ve ever seen or photographed.
This area is farming country, and fields of grain are the main feature of the landscape. Wonderful patterns, textures and colors occur throughout the year on the farms. Hiring a small plane to do aerial photos can open a world of possibilities with the patchwork-quilt nature of the landscape below. A favorite aerial image of mine is of the random patterns made by a farmer with a plow on a fallow field. It’s typical of the abstract images a vigilant eye can find in the endless fields of corn, soy and wheat.
Besides the dangers of weather, a few other quite nasty critters that are ubiquitous in the Midwest outdoor world should be mentioned: ticks and mosquitoes. Use clothing and spray to avoid the bites of these monsters. Ticks seem to be on the rise in the whole area. I don’t remember any when I was a kid. I hate ticks. They carry several different diseases, all life-threatening, and mosquitoes are just as bad. Poison ivy is also everywhere, and no matter how hard I try, I often come back with a case of the evil stuff. Fortunately, there are a number of good drugs that can knock it out quickly.
The “Flyover Country” has great charms. Shooting the frozen Mississippi or the rhapsodic colors of an Indiana forest also can be lonely pursuits—quite a welcome relief from the hordes of fall color photographers elsewhere. It’s not the same wilderness of the West, but it’s as quintessentially American as Yosemite Falls or Delicate Arch.
I’m not giving away any great secrets here. The Midwest reveals its pockets of beauty reluctantly, and I’ll leave some of the best for you to find on your own. In no particular order:1 The Mississippi River, Northeastern Iowa. The area is typified by huge bluffs rising dramatically hundreds of feet above the mighty flow. Effigy Mounds National Monument and Pikes Peak State Park are two great spots to visit.
2 Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio. Come to this park in autumn to shoot the many waterfalls, especially after a rain. Blue Hen Falls sits in a grove of maple trees that drop their leaves all over the cascade below.
3 Starved Rock State Park, Illinois. Perhaps the finest park in Illinois, Starved Rock (what a great name) is home to waterfalls and rock formations not far from Chicago.
4 Niobrara National Scenic River, Nebraska. A canoe trip down this beautiful river includes wildflower fields, waterfalls and imposing rock bluffs.
5 Hodgson Mill, Missouri. This red mill with a small cascade in front is typical of the wonderful barns, windmills, gristmills and other Americana subjects sprinkled liberally across the entire area. Ask permission to shoot these subjects on private land. You’ll almost always be given permission and welcomed like royalty.
6 Kalsow Prairie State Preserve, Iowa. Small remnants of the vast prairies that once covered the entire region, and were sometimes grazed by elk, can be found everywhere in the area. Indigenous wildflowers can be found most commonly in these tiny enclaves.
7 Lake Erie, Ohio. Who would have ever thought that Lake Erie would be recommended as a photo hot spot in these pages? The south end of the lake has a marvelous lighthouse, and in winter, you can visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and then go out at sunset to shoot the lake water blown onto shoreline trees and later frozen.
8 McCormick’s Creek State Park, Indiana. During the right year, the trees in this park resemble Eastern forests in color and beauty.
9 Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio. Hocking Hills is a true wonder and a longtime favorite of mine. The park features a great diversity of large rock alcoves, waterfalls and wildflowers. Fall and spring are especially grand here. Look for abstract patterns in the colorful walls.
10 Monument Rocks, Kansas. On the cusp of the Midwest and the Great Plains, these great formations are unique, especially Keyhole Arch, which frames sunrise.
In 2015, Tom Till will celebrate 40 years as a professional landscape and nature photographer. See more of his photography and sign up for his workshops at www.tomtillphotography.com.