Lewis Ableidinger (b. 1983) grew up in Kensal, ND and attended Minnesota State University Moorhead. He received a BS in Graphic Communications and a Bachelor of Music in Jazz Performance in 2007. Since graduation, he has worked as a conductor and later an engineer for Wisconsin and Southern Railroad and Canadian Pacific Railway in WI, MN, and ND. He lives in the small town of Harvey, ND.
The wonderful images featured here belong to Ableidinger’s series ‘Driving Through Flyover Country’ and ‘Cold War Relics’. The featured image above is from his ongoing ‘Western Landscapes’ series. His responses to my simple questions below are quite detailed and offer insight into his process of image-making and preferences:
I grew up on a farm near the small town of Kensal in central North Dakota and it was growing up in this landscape that made me appreciate the wide open spaces of the plains and prairies of the Midwest which has been my primary focus in photography. Even though I’ve been interested in photography since high school I never saw it as a career. I majored in graphic design and music in college and have spent the past eight years working as a railroad conductor and engineer. Photography was always a side interest for me, but in the past few years I’ve begun to look at more photography in the art world and narrow the focus of my own work.
In my work I am trying to make a statement about a place using what already exists in the landscape. Though I work in the documentary style I won’t say that my work is purely documentary. What I choose to include or exclude from a photograph can change what I’m saying about a particular place, so though my work is generally ‘straight’ photography I’m still including my own personal views into the work. When I began photographing it was purely just to document what was there. Where I grew up in North Dakota there were a lot of things rapidly disappearing from the small towns around me and I wanted simply a record of what was there before it was gone. In college I was fortunate enough to take some classes with Wayne Gudmundson, a photographer that primarily worked in the same plains landscapes I was working in. In addition to his own work he introduced me to Robert Adams and Frank Gohlke and I began to think perhaps my pictures could be more than just a dry history lesson but actually say something. Wayne shifted my course in photography more towards the art side, and since then I have continually worked to educate myself to what other photographers are doing and saying in their work.
I find two groups of work viz. new topographical photography and railroad projects prominently in your website. How did your interest in these two themes grow and what are the other themes or genres that you like (or plan) to shoot?
I’ll start with the railroad themed works I’ve done (‘Modern Railroad Structures’ and ‘Photographs from the Railroad Earth’). I’ve been interested in railroads since I was a kid and a lot of my early photography was centered around railroads, and for better or worse I’ve made a career out of railroading. In the early days each railroad developed a set of standard designs for the depots they built in each of the little towns they served. Just by looking at the architecture of the small town depot it was possible to determine the railroad that served that town. With the demise of passenger trains and improved communications systems the small town depot disappeared. In its place came prefab metal shacks to house the section crews that maintained the track. I began to notice that like the old depots these prefab buildings also seemed to follow a sort of standardized design and color scheme for each railroad and the ‘Modern Railroad Structures’ grew out of this. I am looking at the similarities and differences of these buildings that most people overlook since they don’t have the same architectural beauty that could be found in the old railroad depots. ‘Photographs from the Railroad Earth’ is meant to be an examination of the railroad landscape within the landscape it operates through.
I have always been primarily interested in ‘straight’ photography, or documentary-style photography, and that’s the style I’ve been working in almost since I started. I was formally introduced into the New Topographics style when I met Frank Gohlke in college. I looked into more of his work as well as Robert Adams, Stephen Shore, and Lewis Baltz and thought this was all pretty similar to the photography I had been doing for years, except their work was much more interesting. This led me to do more studying of their photography to better understand what it was they were doing. I can’t say I have it completely figured out (can you ever really?) but I do have a better idea of what their work is about. It’s also not just about their ideas but also how they chose and composed their subjects. I have tried to take some of the lessons I have learned about photography from these masters and incorporate it into my own work.
I recently discovered to work of Ron Jude, and in particular his ‘Lago’ series. Though these photographs were made in the documentary-style they are less about telling a story and more psychological, trying to capture the feel and atmosphere of a place. I’ve been considering how to incorporate this idea into future projects that I’m considering.
I’m also always considering ways to bring another passion of mine, history, into photography. Lately I’ve been doing some research on a stage line that ran from Bismarck, ND, to Deadwood, SD, and I think it would be fun to do some photographic project based around that (aside from any ‘rephotographic’ project).
‘Cold War Relics’ examines the decommissioned Minuteman Missile sites that were part of the 321st Missile Wing of the Grand Forks Air Force Base. These missile sites (as well as Wings in South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Missouri) were constructed in the 1960s as the Cold War was ramping up. The 321st Wing was in control of 150 nuclear-tipped Minuteman Missiles capable of being fired towards the Soviet Union at a moment’s notice. With the signing of the 1991 START Treaty the 321st Wing was deemed surplus and the sights decommissioned at destroyed. The missile silos and Missile Alert Facilities (the control centers for launching the missiles) were sold to private individuals. These sites have been essentially abandoned for almost 20 years and are becoming dilapidated much like the abandoned farms that surround them. This series looks at what’s left of these sites, once capable of destroying a large part of the world, that are now slowly returning to the North Dakota prairie.
‘Driving Through Flyover Country’ is the main project I am currently working on. Flyover Country is essentially the Midwestern US (where I group up), an area of land that is viewed as boring and just flown over to get to the east or west coasts where more interesting things happen. This project looks at what is in Flyover Country and how it’s not a boring place where nothing interesting happens. There are plenty of interesting things to photograph in Flyover Country if you take the time to slow down and look at what’s around you. Most of my travels are within the Flyover States and I prefer to drive to my destinations so that I may make pictures along the way and the title evolved out of that. The project is far from complete but I’m starting to develop some ideas in it that I like.
I generally do very little planning. Mostly I take out a map and begin to wonder what this town or that area looks like and drive there to check it out. Sometimes I don’t even look on a map and just head in a general direction. Sometimes I find a lot of things to photograph along the way, other days I just have to enjoy the drive. Sometimes I will find subjects I really like and will return to those places when I know the light would be better, or just to see what’s changed, but mostly my approach to shooting is an exercise in discovery.
I started in photography on film cameras but like a lot of other people I eventually moved into digital and have used a Canon 5D for the past several years, partly because my erratic work schedule didn’t leave much extra time that is required for film photography and partly because I had no access to a darkroom and didn’t own any scanner that could do a satisfactory job with the medium format I had been shooting previously. Recently though I’ve dug out my Hasselblad and Shen-Hao 4×5 field camera and have been using film almost exclusively again. A better work schedule an investing in some decent scanning equipment has allowed me to get back into using film. I’m primarily using my 4×5 now because I like the almost infinite depth-of-field (or sometimes almost no depth-of-field that can be achieved through the movements) and I’d like to try printing some of my work larger than what can be done satisfactorily with digital SLR cameras.
I have several favorite photos but they’re all photos within my private collection, photos that don’t have much artistic value but have a lot of personal value. One of the highlights of my life was getting to have a private portfolio review and discussion with Frank Gohlke. Looking back on it my work was not very good at the time but Frank nonetheless offered some great advice and it was a wonderful experience to get to talk with him for a while.
There is a lot out there and people are taking photography in all kinds of different directions. Some are to my taste and others are not but I don’t think any of the serious work people are doing is bad work. Just when you think everything that can be done with photography has been done someone will come along with a new approach that can just make you think no, there’s a lot left to be covered in this medium of art!
I am planning on making a few trips this spring and summer to continue work on my ‘Flyover Country’ series. I’d like to start adding some portraiture work into that series to round it out some. Another series that I started dabbling in this past summer and fall is ‘Western Landscapes’ and I hope to get the first batch of photos up onto my website soon. The West is full of wide open spaces but most of that space is fenced off with barbed wire, which although it’s usually meant to keep cattle in also sends a signal that the public should stay out. In this series I set the camera close to these barbed wire fences and focused on them and shot ‘wide open’. The result is the fence is fully in focus but the landscape behind it becomes a sort of dreamscape, the kind of image you may think in your head when you think of ‘The West’. The colors are in your mind, the shapes are in your mind, but it’s not a sharp image. The barbed wire is what separates you from this imagined western landscape. And as far as aspirations what photographer doesn’t dream of having a book published? Hopefully someday that can happen, but I’m still quite a ways off from being able to do that yet.
I have so many photographers that have influenced my and that I like I don’t think I could name them all here. I will say one think that Joel Sternfeld taught me is it’s OK to include humor in photographs, and that is one aspect of his photography I really enjoy.
Something to say to our readers or aspiring photographers:
Most people get into photography because it was fun to do. It’s OK to still have fun while making photographs. Sometimes it’s fun just to take that ridiculous picture that you see, it doesn’t mean anyone has to ever see it. Keeping the fun somewhere in your work helps to keep going.