Somewhere in Nebraska this summer, Bill Frakes and his film and photo crew got stuck in mud, and someone pulled them out.
Somewhere in Nebraska this summer, they got stuck in sand, and someone pulled them out.
Somewhere in Nebraska this summer, Frakes visited the graves of his grandparents, his great-grandparents, his great-great grandparents and, nearby, the hillside he believes cradles his great-great-great grandparents.
And all over Nebraska this summer, the photojournalist and Scottsbluff native combined his profession, and his passion for the state, to produce a highly polished but still-in-progress website celebrating its people and places.
“I love Nebraska. I’ve always loved Nebraska,” the Sports Illustrated staffer said. “There’s a certain sense of being a Nebraskan that’s hard for me to enumerate, but I can do it in photographs and film.”
So Frakes and his crew filled The Nebraska Project with 100 still photos and, so far, 15 short documentaries, many of them focusing on the rustic, rural and resilient.
A silver-haired couple married more than 60 years, love still strong in their smiles. A younger couple, raising their daughters and their cows inside an endless Sandhills horizon. The State Fair and Friday night football. Violent nighttime storms and watercolor vistas.
All of it a reminder to those who live here, a message to those who don’t.
“I want people who know Nebraska to appreciate the things we all love and enjoy as Nebraskans. And I want the rest of the world to see this place that I love.”
Frakes hasn’t lived in Nebraska for decades. He was home in Florida on Tuesday and at his office in New York on Wednesday. His work has taken him to 50 states and 138 countries.
But he always comes back here, sometimes several times a year, with his cameras.
“It’s the nicest, the calmest and prettiest place I know,” he said. “I’d come in for a week and make photos and I’d get in and get out.”
He’d been plotting something bigger -- more concentrated, more dedicated -- for years. This spring, while filming sandhill cranes near Grand Island, a friend suggested he meet with the state Tourism Commission.
The deal they struck helped Frakes launch his project: The commission would provide some money, he said, and he would allow it to promote Nebraska with some of his documentaries.
But he didn’t want to be told what to produce. And the state agreed.
“We were very comfortable letting Bill have creative freedom over the project,” said Kathy McKillip, commission director. “We wanted Bill to tell the story without it looking like he was being directed.”
With a blank slate of state in front of them, Frakes and his team started planning their next several months. They considered more than 120 story ideas, narrowed them down and started shooting.
During 10 trips, they logged at least 17,000 miles and landed in more than 70 counties.
“I didn’t have a single person ask me not to take photographs. Nobody ever. Once I told them what I was doing and why I was there, everybody was so gracious.”
Some of the short documentaries are profiles -- of the young ranching family, of his one-room schoolteacher mother, of former poet laureate Ted Kooser. Others are tapestries. Five minutes of fluid Nebraska skies, set against windmills and water towers, a photo booth at the State Fair, with Nebraskans talking about Nebraska.
Over the summer, they got rained on and rained out and they got stuck more than once. But even that was a pure Nebraska experience.
“Within minutes,” Frakes said, “someone pulled us out.”
That kindness of strangers, and Frakes’ roots, helped open doors for the crew, said Laura Heald, his co-creator.
“It was definitely an easy place to work, in part because Bill has plenty of connections.”
She called it the Nebraska name game: “Anywhere you go, it’s guaranteed one Nebraskan will have something in common with another Nebraskan. Somehow, some way, he knew somebody.”
By Frakes’ estimate, he spent nearly 160 days this year researching, traveling, shooting and editing the stories on his website. And that doesn’t count the videos and images on the site he’d produced before this year.
It wasn’t cheap. He figures he spent in the low six figures -- some of it his money, some from the state, more from other donors -- on this year’s production. His site is selling prints, calendars, cards and T-shirts, the money going back into the project.
But the website will pay in intangible ways, too.
While showing off his state, it’s also showing off his work.
“It’s a portfolio for me,” he said. “It’s a promotional piece for me.”
And for the Nebraska Tourism Commission, which is releasing 10 of the short documentaries on its YouTube and Facebook pages.
“This is a different approach for us,” McKillip said. “We could have done another billboard.”
The Nebraska Project isn’t finished. Frakes wants to spend time the next two years filming and photographing, filling the site with more people and places in time for Nebraska’s 150th birthday in 2017.
“Everybody says it’s the middle of nowhere,” he said last week, sitting in his car outside of a Starbucks in Florida.
“But I believe it’s the center of everywhere.”