Photographs are able to give us the best possible representation of what is out there in the world around us. Thus influencing our interpretations and perceptions of the world. There are many photographers whose work impacts the audiences better than you could expect. To me the simplest image with a large story behind it are the most inspiring. One photographer whose work embodies this influential simplicity is Danny Wilcox Frazier with this photographs in Driftless and Iowa. A month ago, I got to interview Danny Wilcox Frazier, who inspired many with his photobooks about rural America.
When asked about his inspiration and motivation behind his work, Danny states, “Driftless is my reaction to the depopulation of the kinds of towns I grew up in. Throughout my childhood and my adult life these kinds of communities have been losing population. The results of that have been a lot of economic insecurity, these places are economically challenged. It was not that I was so concerned about the young people moving away, I was concerned what life was like for those left in the wake of this great migration.”
There is so much behind Danny’s work and what he wants to be represented. “Iowa was my first book. I wanted that body of work to be a very personal statement about what life in rural America is like. The Badlands, as I started to move out west, was an expansion of that work. I was moving into more regions that were more challenged in regard to the economic impact of the depopulation.”
Danny wanted to photograph rural America to inform the world about what is happening, to document real life situations and history. Danny is working with a group called Facing Change: Documenting America, which is modeled after the Farm Security Administration. The FSA did similar work during the Great Depression with Walker Evens, Gordon Parks and Dorothea Lange, to document what was happening at the time. Danny and Facing Change are using his work with rural America to record what is happening. “How I describe my work is that I am working to document the emotional landscape of rural America. Not the physical landscape. I want to know why people want to stay, why they care about living in these little places all over,” Danny explained. “Rural America is becoming a rural ghetto”
Hearing Danny’s take on his own work was just as inspiring as the work itself. There should be a passion and desire in everything we do and Danny’s passion for his photobooks and the influence they could possible cause leaves me in awe because it is so insightful. Danny told me that, “it would be great to think that my work could influence policy makers to come up with more economic incentives. But honestly for a lot of the places, for the generation that is there now, a lot of these communities the vast majority residents are over 60, when that generation disappears, a lot of these places will disappear. I see my work as a historic record of a time that is pasted…I am just recording it as it is disappearing so if nothing else it is a historic record.”
Yet, there is so much more than just the inspiration that Danny hopes his photographs bring people. He stated, “I work hard to publish my work in news outlets, so that I can bring these stories about these places to the public now. I am just as concerned with publishing books and doing things like the documentary, making sure my work is housed in intuition…Getting my work from rural America into an intuition like the Library of Congress insures that this document of this time, of these communities will live well past me.”
Now even those that inspire us also gain inspiration. When I asked Danny what inspired him all throughout his career, he responded with an extremely detailed list. Along with the work of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, Danny detailed that, “the greatest influences were Robert Frank with The Americans, Larry Clark and his book Tulsa, Nan Goldin and her book Ballad of Sexual Dependency, more contemporaries like Larry Towell. But I also draw from film…It was mostly still photography that influenced Dirftless. But now I think my photography is influenced by the work of fiction and even music.”
We as humans are influenced by so many different topic, images and types of music. The culture art brings us efects us in ways that not everyone can understand. After talking with Danny about the ways he hopes his work inspires others and about his own personal inspiration, I wanted to see his take on why and how photographs influence our culture. He stated that, “the great thing about still photos is that they have that permanency. They have that ability to cauterize themselves like burn themselves into our collective memory. That is what an iconic photos is. We bare the weight of our own life experience when we view a photo. So a photo comes before us either personally or collectively and we all have the weight when we interpret it. A great photo embraces the ambiguity of photography. I’m not trying to make work that tells you how to feel, I’m not making work that tells exactly what is going on in rural America. I am making work that draws you in and you feel a connection to my subjects, you can feel a connection to the place.”
We then got to talking about images from 9-11 with the man throwing himself off the tower and the images/videos of protests around the world. Danny looked at me and added, “great photographs create large questions.” This is a true statement and relates everything back to his work, he is creating that large question of why people want to stay and the past photographs from history have done the same.
Danny then added, “I think it is a form of communication. It has an impact like no other…Photography is a subjective act. An image isn’t any all-encompassing truth. Photography has this place of privilege in regard to record of events. A photograph is the closest that we have.” For someone who is trying to record history before it vanishes, he is recording a snapshot of the truth that is out there. There are so many images around us in the world that inspire us and Danny continues to add to that list. He is showing a representation of the world at this time in history and he is right it is unclear how it will impact people as long as it does. Danny stated, “My photography lives and dies on emotion.”