I grew up on a farm. The stone wall snaked the boundaries of my family’s fields and the neighbor’s tree line. I remember monkeying my way to the highest limb in the crabapple tree by the small pond just down the hill from our farmhouse. The wind would brush my hair back and bring about an elevated sense of being and connection. Youth sheltered me from the complexities of farm life and filtered the reality of an outside world growing different from the rural existence my extended family was living.
Taxes on land were high and locals were no longer buying meat from the farm. Instead they were driving in droves to the supermarket for food wrapped neatly in anonymous, sterile plastic-covered packages. Before we knew it, we were losing our foothold in the idealistic endeavor of self-reliance on a family farm. Farms require land and hands. We had both, but times were changing and we weren’t.
After the loss of the farm to the bank, our family separated. We went in the direction the economy and our faculties would allow. Separated by distance, we soon became distant. Our immediate problems became our problems alone. Our desires became our desires alone. An extended family tree, once connected to its trunk, slowly had its limbs torn off by an unexpected storm. We were all dissolving into the great American experiment in capitalism, a mixture of failed aspirations and dream chasing.
After college a friend gifted me a copy of Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America, and from this I began to understand the connection between my family’s loss and our country’s failures. His critical look at the dogma of progress in our country—demonstrated through the demise of community, the loss of agrarian life, and the lack of environmental stewardship— revealed the truths around me.
So I found myself traveling through the towns along the Ohio River, from Pittsburgh to Louisville, on a journey in search of a cause. I was looking for a reason why things had gone awry, not only in those river towns but also in my own history. I consumed Berry’s words over and over again, allowing them to pass through me and process my observations and recognitions of humanity.
The work before you is neither complete nor all encompassing. The people who look into my camera are neither the problem nor the victims. They, and the landscapes surrounding them, are simply a product of what we’ve become. They, in a sense, are we. We are they. Their landscape is yours. It is what we have all created.
There is no way to define what it is I’ve discovered. As with all human endeavors, this one has uncovered a society fraught with contradictions. I’ve witnessed proud acquiescence, dependent self-reliance, rusted preservation, artificial heritage, arranged disorder, disconnected adaptation, and burdened faith.
This undertaking has been anthropologic in nature. It was as if the river itself had dried up and what remained is simply what I photographed and recorded as a part of our shared history: the remnants of our aspirations, the refuse of our industry, the erosion of our natural world, and the skeletons of those unable to cross the fast moving waters.
I was in search of what had settled.