In the 1800s, surveyors covered Nebraska -- and the rest of the West -- with a series of grids, dividing the land into 1-mile squares that sent roads in straight lines across the undisturbed hills and prairie.
“Today it is hard for us to see or feel anything from that world the surveyor’s relentless grid replaced -- but occasionally, we can catch glimpses,” photographer Michael Farrell writes in an essay. “The photographs in this collection were made at points where our modern grid intersects with the ancient rivers and streams of eastern Nebraska.”
The collection is called “Stream Crossings: Where the Relentless Rationality of an Applied Physical System Intersects with Our Meandering Prairie Watercourses.” An exhibition of more than 20 of Farrell’s color photographs from that collection is now on view at Iron Tail Gallery.
The highly detailed photos are shot with an 8-by-10 Ebony view camera. “It’s the same kind of camera they shot the Civil War with, basically,” Farrell said. They’re taken across Southeast Nebraska, many of them in Richardson, Johnson, Otoe and Pawnee counties.
To get the shots, Farrell and Lynne Ireland load his 75-pound backpack containing his camera and lens, tripod and film along with a 6-foot folding ladder in his Toyota 4Runner and hit the county roads.
Prior to venturing out, Farrell looks at the area he intends to explore from above via Google Earth, consults a directory and plots a route using county maps.
Arriving at the bridges -- if they’re still there -- Farrell first determines whether he wants to make a photo. If so, he spends about an hour figuring out how to create the shot -- where to set up the camera, the length of exposure, etc. -- before clicking the shutter.
“If we go to 20, I might shoot five or seven or nine, depending on what the day is like,” Farrell said. “Generally speaking, I’ll shoot one negative at a bridge because it’s so expensive …. Every time I click the shutter, I’m spending 35 to 45 bucks.”
Half of that cost is for the negative. The other half is to ship it to a lab in New York for processing. When the negative is returned, Farrell scans it into a computer and uses Photoshop and other tools to correct the color and eliminate scratches.
The images are then produced on a printer with a maximum width of 44 inches. That allows Farrell to print very large 40-inch by 50-inch photographs.
The Iron Tail exhibition, which was being installed at the time I viewed it and talked to Farrell, will contain at least three of the large photographs. There are also a handful of medium-sized works in the 20 or so images on view. The “Streams Crossing” portfolio contains 45 images.
The images are striking, sometimes zeroing in on the steel of the bridges with the stream bed in the background, sometimes looking at the old structures from a distance with no water in view, sometimes looking down the bridge, sometimes focusing on the stream.
Fixing attention on the usually overlooked and unseen structures by those who never venture down a country road, Farrell has created aesthetically pleasing, technically impressive views of the bridges, bringing the familiar into sharp view.
Then, in the essay, which is part of the show, he raises a thought-provoking question.
The bridges are, of course, public. But outside of a few feet on either side of the bridge, the stream beds belong to the landowner. Given the primary importance of water and the varied uses of streams, Farrell asks:
“How can we divorce our watercourses from the life-giving water that runs through them? Isn’t a river, creek or stream an integral natural system overflowing with all manner of life and complexity -- including our own?
“Does a river or stream, as a complex living habitat, have a kind (of) integrity that should be considered inherently something other than private property?”
The exhibition, which runs through July, is up. But Farrell, who produces documentaries at Nebraska Educational Telecommunications, says he’s not done shooting bridges.
“I’ll probably keep fooling with this for a little while longer,” he said. “I do this to keep my mental health. If it’s not this, it will be something like it.”