By Fred Camper

In 1978 photographer Terry Evans was living in Salina, Kansas, where she’d become friends with Wes Jackson, whose Land Institute was studying the prairie ecosystem, seeking an agricultural model that would be kinder to the land than large-scale monocultural farming. Jackson asked her to do a series documenting changes in one-meter patches of virgin land; the idea was to learn more “about the biological structure and growing patterns of the prairie and how different plants influenced each other.”

Evans, who’d lived in Kansas and Missouri most of her life, hadn’t been interested in doing landscapes; she’d spent a decade doing mostly portraits. But as she was finishing the work for Jackson, she says, “I was suddenly so startled by how this rich diversity and complexity had emerged. I started becoming absolutely obsessed.” She began going back repeatedly to photograph the prairie on her own. “All those years when I’d been photographing people had been motivated by a curiosity that was really a yearning to understand the universe, and when I looked at the ground and saw this richness of information I realized that nature might be a way to understand. Suddenly it seemed like everything I wanted to know was right there.” For instance, she says, “Native American paintings sometimes look primitive to the so-called sophisticated European eye–like they just don’t know how to draw. But what they’re doing is showing various levels of reality. There is a kind of flat planar perspective that seemed similar to what I was seeing with this interrelatedness of patterns on the ground–all aspects of the image carry the same weight, and we don’t have a center of attention.”

Evans had grown up in Kansas City, Missouri, where her parents ran a photography studio. They gave her a little box camera when she was young, but she was more interested in drawing. She remembers a junior high art teacher who took the class outside to do watercolors. “She showed us how light was a part of the subject and how working with watercolor you could leave the paper white and the whiteness of it could show light. This was the first time I started realizing that when I looked around me I was looking not just at trees against a background or trees that are separate from each other, but at this whole unified field of light and dark and different colors. That’s when I began to understand anything at all about pictures, and how the world is sort of woven together.” She felt “this sudden rush of excitement, of feeling completely vibrant.”

Painting and drawing were Evans’s main artistic pursuits through high school and college. Abstraction reigned at the University of Kansas, but she says, “I didn’t have any passion for abstract art. I was trying to do it because that’s what I was supposed to be doing, but I just could not convince myself that this mattered very much.” It was the 60s, and she wanted to make a difference in the world. In 1968 Robert Kennedy came to the campus, and Evans borrowed her father’s camera and went to take pictures of him. “The Vietnam war, a presidential election, Martin Luther King and civil rights–it was terribly exciting to be young and embroiled in this,” she says. It was then she realized she could make pictures that mattered, “that involved a relationship with the world instead of just with my own imagination. That, in fact, was the end of my painting. I finished up my coursework but otherwise I never painted again.” Instead she started teaching photography to disadvantaged girls, then began photographing Kansas’s rural and urban poor.

After shooting the prairie plots for Jackson in ’78, Evans photographed virgin prairie for several years. “In about 1989 I saw a photograph by Peter Goin of an abandoned nuclear test site on a Pacific island. The photograph had a concrete mound that had been built over nuclear trash, and at the top was this red circle with a red pipe sticking out of the center. Peter explained its ‘purpose’–to American pilots flying over the site, it looked like a woman’s breast. That really infuriated me. But there also came this kind of ‘aha!’ realization that I had only been looking at a small part of the prairie, and if I really cared about knowing prairie I needed to look at this other used and abused part. I realized that in some way I had been as neglectful as those soldiers by not looking at the whole body of prairie.”

Evans did several prairie series after that, photographs from which are in her current show, “In Place of Prairie,” at the Art Institute. Two of the series, including her survey of the former Joliet Arsenal, were shot from the air. “In a human-inhabited prairie the immense species diversity of the virgin prairie has been greatly altered and simplified, and in order to see any kind of complexity and in order to see relationships and patterns, I needed to go up to 1,000 feet. I was expecting to see land that had been heavily abused, but in fact it’s much more complicated than that.”

For instance, the Smoky Hill Weapons Range, 34,000 acres southwest of Salina, is still used as a bombing range. “It was so fascinating, all these targets on the ground,” says Evans. “Some were old junked airplanes, some were school buses arranged in lines to look like trains. Yet what I learned from exploring this land on the ground and seeing it from the air is that this land is really well managed for prairie grassland. They are only bombing about 30 percent of it–and they’re even caring for the prairie that they bomb. Some of the rest is rented out for mowing for hay, and there is a lot of wildlife on the land–deer, ponds stocked with fish. The prairie is like a drawing that’s been erased many times, so you see this palimpsest of clues of what used to be there. I began to realize that I could always tell from the air if land had ever been plowed. Sometimes you could see old oxbows lined with trees that would show the old course of a river.”

The show also includes photographs of the small Kansas town of Matfield Green. “I’ve always been fascinated by contemporary human ruins,” says Evans. “What fascinated me when I went to Matfield Green were the abandoned houses. I always think they contain rich stories. What became increasingly interesting to me were the human mysteries. I would go to these places I’d photographed from the air and photograph them from the ground. I became fascinated with the similarities and differences in scale from the air and from the road. Now I’m much more interested in investigating the messiness of humans on the prairie than in understanding the structure of the universe.”

The photos of the Joliet Arsenal, where most explosives production stopped in 1976, include a triptych of a gatehouse. “It’s clearly abandoned,” says Evans. “There are cracks in the concrete around it. It needs a coat of paint. The landscaping around it is bushes and shrubbery that were obviously intentionally planted there, presumably when the building was constructed. Now you can see the bushes growing too high, and you can see these redbud trees still there, yet the grass is getting tall around them. The whole scene looks very untended. Nature had been controlled in a certain way, then the people finished their story there and left–and it seems nature has become a sort of equal partner again.”

Evans goes on, “I don’t think I’ve ever made a photograph with the intention of trying to persuade someone to a particular point of view. But I also think that the problems we have right now with land use–of the prairie, of all land in Western civilization–are serious. The problems are so critical that I do my best to not be divisive, to not point fingers and call names about who’s misusing land. I think it’s extremely important not to take sides between environmentalists and ranchers, for example. I want my photographs to show the nature of prairie in a way that reminds us that it matters. It matters profoundly to me. At the Joliet Arsenal we took the land from the farmers who were using it originally, used it to make bombs for approximately 30 years, and then abandoned it. I personally would not want a destruction of all the human evidence on the landscape, because that’s part of the history too. But after all those years of asking how this land can serve us, we are now asking how we can serve this land, how we can give it back to itself.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Terry Evans photo by Nathan Mandell; Rose Hill Cemetary, Saline County, Kansas, February 19, 1991 photo by Terry Evans; Church east of Crosby, North Dakota, October 15, 1997 photo by Terry Evans.