Taking the Time to Look Down: An Examination of Terry Evans’s Rotational Grazing

Felix Ramin

Terry Evan’s Rotational Grazing was produced as part of the artist’s Canada to Texas series. Supported by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, the series was conceived as a “photographic aerial survey of mixed-grass prairie, covering the full area of its ecological boundaries, from central Saskatchewan to central Texas.”[1] Evans currently resides in Hyde Park, Chicago, however she was born in Kansas City and has spent much of her adult life living in Salina, Kansas. Evans’s intimate relationship with the midwestern landscape undoubtedly influenced her extensive documentation of the prairie over the course of her career as a photographer.

In Rotational Grazing, a photograph which offers an aerial view of a ranch in Chase County, Kansas, Evans explores the evolving relationship between humans and the landscape (fig. 1). The stark straight lines emanating from the central octagonal structure are the result of rotational grazing, a ranching practice in which livestock are moved periodically to graze on different strips of land. Along with these human markings, which seem to recall a clock, the image is also those created by geological and hydrological forces, as well as marks of more ambiguous origins. Through this layering of marks, forces, and temporality, Evans encourages the viewer to look closely at the prairie landscape, a requisite to understand its complexity and the knowledge the layers of history that the land holds.

Rotational Grazing, Chase County, Kansas

Fig. 1. Terry Evans, Rotational Grazing, Chase County, Kansas. 1996, chromogenic print. Gift from the Ann Meyer Rothschild Collection, Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, 2016.27.

The print is taken from an aerial perspective, a viewpoint that has proved to be Evan’s “preferred means for understanding the prairie’s complexity.”[2] Evans first began working with aerial photography in 1980. However even before taking to the sky she had already experimented with horizonless compositions, photographing the same prairie ecosystems by pointing the camera “straight at the ground” from waist height.[3] These close-up views of the prairie offer  “a vision of the universe itself: intricately textured, all encompassing, and buzzing with life and energy” (fig. 2).[4] As Evans took to the sky, she found “a similarly wonderous, interconnected pattern of natural and anthropogenic traces.”[5] Whether in the form of close-up photographs of the prairie grass or aerial photographs like Rotational Grazing, Evans’s work expresses the artist’s fascination with the complexity of the prairie landscape and can be viewed as an attempt to document and convey this sentiment to the viewer.

Fig. 2. Terry Evans, Prairie Scrolls, 1978. http://www.terryevansphotography.com/prairie-scrolls

While the ecological complexity that she encountered from the sky may have been similar to that found on the ground, for Evans, the experience of being in an airplane “allowed her to see familiar ground in a completely novel way.”[6] The patterns and relationships that she could observe between natural and human-altered topographies, like those in Rotational Grazing, were “impossible to see on the ground.”[7] In this sense her work draws on what the early twentieth-century geographer Jean Brunhes saw as the distinguishing feature of the aerial view, its capacity to “reveal an entirely new and very abundant set of surface phenomena.”[8] The abundance of new information about the landscape and patterns of land use offered by Rotational Grazing are only truly digestible from above and take time and experience to be fully understood. Further, without cues from the title and prior knowledge of the agricultural practice, Rotational Grazing could just as easily be interpreted by the viewer as a portrayal of the surface of an unfamiliar, mars-like planet. This underscores what Evans has referred to as the “real time and insight”[9] required to understand the complexity of the prairie landscape.

This emphasis on developing a relationship with the land is also reflected in Evans’s process. Although Evan’s move to aerial photography might initially suggest a greater distance from the land, Evans went to great lengths to familiarize herself with the land from this new perspective. Her usual method of creating aerial photographs involved first “flying with a single pilot repeatedly over a specific geographic region.”[10] In the Canada to Texas series, however, Evans worked at a far larger scale than ever before; rather than focusing on a single prairie system, the project brought her across ecological boundaries.[11] This shift in scale also meant a change in working process. Many of the photographs included in the series were photographed upon first viewing, from planes flown by pilots that Evans was for the most part unfamiliar with.

Photographed in Chase County, Kansas, Rotational Grazing can be regarded as an exception in this respect. In contrast to many of the landscapes pictured in the series, the landscape depicted in this photograph would have been, if not a landscape Evans had flown over multiple times prior, one that she would have at least been more knowledgeable about given her familiarity with other parts of the county and the local prairie ecosystem. Evans’s Prairie Stories speaks to her longstanding relationship with the region. In this extended photographic project, Evans studied “the small community of Matfield Green in Chase County, Kansas,” not far from the ranch depicted in Rotational Grazing and worked in the area between 1990 and 1998 and again from 2008.[12] Throughout this time Evans produced numerous pictures of prairies located in Chase County including Prairie, Chase County (1996), which taken with a Fuji 617 panoramic camera and released in the same month as Rotational Grazing (fig. 3). When discussing her work, Evans emphasizes the importance of prolonged exposure and rigorous study to understand prairie ecosystems. While the topography in Rotational Grazing does not necessarily hold more information than others in the Canada to Texas series, one can imagine that Evans’ intimate knowledge of this particular prairie region contributed to the picture’s incisive staging of the marks on the land produced by the intertwining of natural forces and human activities.

Fig. 3. Terry Evans, Prairie, Chase County, 1996.

Beyond showing the land’s current agricultural function, Rotational Grazing also acts as a record of the human and natural forces that have shaped the land. To better understand the history of human-land relations in the region, Evans asks her viewers not only for attentiveness, but also for a vision unclouded by preconceptions. Describing her early experiences with aerial photography, Evans noted that she expected to find that humans had “irrevocably ruined” the prairies.[13] Over the course of her extensive work studying the prairies, these preconceptions were challenged, prompting Evans to focus on “trying to read [the prairie’s] stories from the facts of the landscape.”[14] Some of these ‘facts’ furnished evidence of misuse, most obviously in works like the Joliet Arsenal project, in which Evans documented the “many acres of tallgrass prairie, [that] had been contaminated by decades of industrial waste.”[15] Evans has long been committed to environmental protection, yet even when documenting regions that have been undeniably harmed by human activity, she remains committed to an “animating optimism,” holding out hope that humans can change their relationship with and behavior towards the land to be more considerate of nature and its agency.[16] Indeed, many of her works directly or indirectly depict human efforts towards more responsible and just modes of land relations. In Joliet Arsenal, this is evidenced in the area’s transfer of ownership to the US Forest Service to be reborn as the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in 1996. Chase County underwent a similar transition at the same time. Just days after Evans made Rotational Grazing, 11,000 acres of tallgrass prairie were legally designated in the area to form the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.[17] It is possible that Evans was aware of this transformation, which she would frame as showing a shift from asking “how can this land serve us” to “how can we serve this land.”[18] Rotational Grazing should therefore be seen as presenting the visible and hidden realities of human habitation in this prairie, which are complex, multifaceted, and while often harmful, can also contain a germ of hope.

Because it is filled with human-made marks, Rotation Grazing seems to ask the viewer to devote the same attention to the face of the land as they would to that of a human. Resembling wrinkles and fingerprints, these intricate markings also remind the viewer of the prairie’s specificity and individuality. The feelings this imagery evokes reflects what Paula Amad has described as aerial photography’s tendency to give rise to “the impulse to perceive the earth as an expressive skin-like surface” and a corresponding the desire to conceptualize the earth in “physiognomic terms.”[19] Evans could be understood as drawing on the human tendency to read aerial photography in physiognomic terms in order to foster close looking and an appreciation for the specificity of the prairie, even as she departs from the geographic tradition discussed by Amad by refusing to allow the land she depicts to be fully humanized. As the Mars-like quality of Rotational Grazing suggests, the landscape is at once human and irreducibly other.

Evans also distances herself from the habitual association of aerial photography with a god-like and omnipotent viewpoint. Karen Frome writes that the aerial view enabled man to “imagine that he could control all that lay below” from a position that prior to its use as a military reconnaissance technique, had been available only “to the celestial eye of god or through imagined and/or constructed depictions by artists and cartographers”[20]. Though the vantage point that Evans captures her landscape from is novel to most viewers, she shares her aerial experiences with the viewer, and as April Watson writes does not intend to portray “a free-floating God’s-eye view.”[21]

Instead of humanizing the earth in Rotational Grazing, Evans asks her viewers to consider the landscape as a living organism or collection of organisms that includes but is not limited to humans. Keith Davis writes that the patterns Evans saw in her early photographs of the prairie grass at her feet “encompassed an entirely visual vocabulary […] derived from the living body of the world.”[22] More than simply view the prairie as a living, Evans also seems to regard it as a being that, like humans, communicates and should be listened to. Describing another project called Inhabited Prairie, she draws similar connections to humans, where she writes that “all land, like the human body, is beautiful.”[23] Her likening of landscapes like the grazing field in Rotational Grazing to the human body shows not only a call for human attention, but also an appreciation for the specificity of such natural forms. Like human bodies, all of which are unique, Evans also regards the prairies as individualized. A unique combination of innate factors and lived experiences that shape both human and natural.

Even as they contribute to the “physiognomic” qualities of the image, the lines captured in Rotational Grazing offer a full spectrum of human and natural markings, some with more ambiguous origins than others. When looking at the photograph, the eye is almost immediately drawn to the octagonal structure at its upper right and the multitude of rigid straight lines that emanate from it. These lines, some of which fade quickly and while others boldly cut across the picture, are the result of rotational grazing, a ranching practice in which animals are gradually moved from one strip of pasture to another. These lines can be contrasted with the organic, winding, splintering lines formed by a dry riverbed at the lower left. Bold shadows emphasize both the riverbed and grazing patterns and in some portions of the image the lines seem to be in direct conflict. One bold grazing line seems to extend vertically down from the octagon, cutting cleanly through the riverbed. Not all of these marks, however, are as easily categorized; some of the riverbed lines seem too straight to be natural, other lines emanating from the octagon not straight enough. Through this, the image shows the complexity of human habitation of the prairie and how the human and natural overlap, intersect and conflict.

Evans’ photograph not only shows the prairie landscape to be complex and unique, but also dynamic. The evocation of time is everywhere in Rotational Grazing. The clock-like imagery created by the grazing lines and the title itself guide the observer to consider the cyclical nature of this particular agricultural practice and the way it interacts with the natural cycles of the earth. April Watson writes in Heartland that it is “through [Evans’s] understanding of the interconnectedness of the land, people, and time that [she] hears the stories of the prairie and conveys them eloquently to all who care to listen.”[24] Seasonal cycles influence the volume of available water and plant growth, which are a key consideration for the prairies’ human inhabitants. At the same time, human land use patterns can drastically alter these same natural cycles. This interconnectedness is especially apparent in some of the questions that the landscape raises for viewers unacquainted with Chase County and mixed-grass prairie landscapes: should there be more vegetation, given the photo is labelled as being taken in November? Why is this riverbed dried up and for how long has it been so? What does it mean that the only greenery in the image surrounds the human corral?

To conclude, in Rotational Grazing Terry Evans urges the viewer to consider the complex human and natural forces that together have shaped the area. Her use of the aerial view presents us with a physiognomic portrait of the prairie landscape in which the viewer is encouraged to consider the way human and geological forces have shaped the land. She emphasizes the specificity and dynamic nature of the prairie landscape, which takes time to be created, and subsequently understood. The aerial view Evans chooses to share with the observer should be understood as encouraging close looking rather than alienation. Although defamiliarizing, it should ultimately be regarded as an invitation to dedicate the same attention to the earth that one would to another human, which might be regarded as the first step towards developing a more just relationship with the land.

[1] Keith Davis et al., Heartland: The Photographs of Terry Evans (Kansas City: Hall Family Foundation and the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, 2012), 210.

[2] April M. Watson, “As Above, So Below: The Humane Perspective of Terry Evans’s Aerial Landscapes,” in Heartland: The Photographs of Terry Evans (Kansas City: Hall Family Foundation and the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, 2012), 45.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Keith Davis, “Figure/ Ground: Terry Evans and the Art of Landscape Photography,” in Heartland: The Photographs of Terry Evans (Kansas City: Hall Family Foundation and the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, 2012), 25.

[5] Watson, 45.

[6] Davis, 27.

[7] Watson, 45.

[8] Paula Amad, Counter-archive: Film, the Everyday, and Albert Kahn’s Archives De La Planète (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 271.

[9] Terry Evans quoted in Heartland: The Photographs of Terry Evans (Kansas City: Hall Family Foundation and the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, 2012), 9.

[10] Watson, 54.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Davis, 28.

[13] Watson, 46.

[14]  Terry Evans and Donald Worster, The Inhabited Prairie (Lawrence, Kan.: University

Press of Kansas, 1998), x.

[15] Davis, 28.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Places we Protect: Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve,” The Nature Conservatory, 2021. https://www.nature.org/en-us/get-involved/how-to-help/places-we-protect/tallgrass-prairie-national-preserve/

[18] Terry Evans, Disarming the Prairie (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 1.

[19] Amad, 271.

[20] Karen Frome quoted in Deriu. David Deriu, “The Photogenic City: Aerial Photography and Urban Visions in Europe, 1914-1945,” (PhD Dissertation, University College London, 2004), 166.

[21] Watson, 45.

[22] Davis, 25.

[23] Evans and Worster, x.

[24] Watson, 42.

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