In the 1980s, the photographer Terry Evans, whose career retrospective opens this month at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, shifted her attention from isolated areas of pristine tallgrass prairie to the wider inhabited prairie and the complex pressures on its ecology. The unexpected prompt was a photograph of an abandoned atomic test site on a Pacific atoll. Only eight miles from Evans’s family farm in Salina, Kansas, lay the Smoky Hills Weapons Range. Also nearby were the traces of a prisoner-of-war camp for German soldiers captured during World War II. Evans wanted to see and understand this other prairie — “disturbed, cultivated, militarized” — and to do so, she realized, she would need to take to the air. 1
“The airplane,” Antoine de Saint Exupéry wrote, “has unveiled for us the true face of the earth.” 2 From the vantage of a Cessna, Evans could tell different stories of the prairie — stories of irrigation and extraction, flooded fields and drained wetlands, feedlots and bomb targets. Seen from the air, these features of the prairie could be shown in truer relation to one another, although in Evans’s photographs the aerial perspective offers not a panoptical view but a provisional and humble one. 3 She is a pragmatist with a keen sense of the paradoxes that attend conservation work today; she knows that there is no simple truth in any prairie survey. The Smoky Hills Weapons Range, for example, shelters abundant wildlife and includes a vast acreage of well managed grassland. After moving to Chicago in 1994, Evans found 19,000 acres of open land surrounding abandoned weapons factories and ammunition dumps at the Joliet Arsenal, which she made the subject of her 1998 book Disarming the Prairie. Preserved by the government as a buffer against accidental explosion, this land is now under restoration as the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. (Even the prairie closest to Evans’s home, in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago where we both live, is a restored military site — a two-acre butterfly sanctuary atop the remnants of a Cold War-era Nike missile base.) Prairie conservation finds opportunity in unlikely and often unnoticed places. As these examples suggest, Evans’s most characteristic work is about remnants — some rallying, others fading — and the legacies and compromises with which they contend. Always her pictures describe these places with hope and affection.
The complexity of the prairie stories that Evans wants to tell has meant that aerial perspectives alone don’t suffice. She continued to examine the prairie and its inhabitants on foot, and she looked closer yet, in a series of photographs of specimens in the collection of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Her large-format images of 19th-century herbarium sheets are studio counterparts to her aerial landscapes, vertical views of patterns composed on a two-dimensional pictorial space. Where the aerial photographs reveal the delicacy of streams, paths and lengthening shadows cast by hills and trees, the specimen pictures focus on the cursive intricacies of stem, leaf and handwriting. 4 Although these are her most objective photographs, they are also among her most personal, for they arise from a kinship with the naturalists and explorers who gathered these specimens and made the earliest studies of prairie ecology. Explaining the impulse behind this work, Evans reaches for an observation by the theater director Mary Zimmerman: “Scientific inquiry into the ways of the world is an act of sustained, intense attention, which is another way of saying an act of love.” 5
In Disarming the Prairie, Evans wrote, “We used to be asking the question, ‘How can this land serve us?’ Now we have turned the question around and are asking, ‘How can we serve this land?’” That remains Evans’s guiding question, and her way of pursuing it has included partnerships with organizations like the Nature Conservancy, the Openlands Project and the Land Institute. Evans’s work has taken her as far afield as Greenland, where she photographed glaciers affected by climate change. Currently, Evans is collaborating with the journalist Elizabeth Farnsworth on an exploration of the North Dakota oil boom and its effects both on the land and on individual lives. The project is a departure for Evans because it documents a prairie not just inhabited but in a process of dramatic change.
Even in Chicago, Evans’s connection to her native Kansas remains deep. Next month, her seventh monograph, Prairie Stories, will be published by Radius Books. At once Evans’s most intimate and ambitious book, it portrays Matfield Green, a Kansas town of a few dozen inhabitants, and the surrounding hills over a span of 20 years. One photograph in particular seems to draw into a single picture all the genres in which Evans has worked: a mattress decays in an abandoned house, its bedspread flattened by the elements into a fissured landscape and strewn with leaves blown through open windows. With a jar and a plate resting on the bed, it still seems a private space, an implied portrait.
Prairie Stories recalls Robert Adams’s 1978 classic Prairie, not least in its marriage of formal precision and restraint to a deep affinity for its subject. For Adams, the isolated, high plains towns of Colorado have a more emblematic quality than Evans will allow for Matfield Green. Evans casts a familiar eye where Adams’s vision is more austere. But Evans and Adams both look upon the inhabitants of their prairie towns, as to the vast country beyond, with the same consciousness of “our hope and its vulnerability.” 6