Friday, February 26, 2010

The Scary Prairie, or Kansas in proper focus

Fences create a barrier between neighbors, keeping
cattle in and keeping strangers out. Try hopping over this

A wall cloud is best seen on the prairie. In the city
buildings hide the mass of the phenomenon. On the
open prairie there is no shelter, no protection for a
tiny human in this vast landscape.

On the edge of the city where one can
see the full openness of the prairie sky,
the awesome power of a lighting strike
can be more fully appreciated.

Cousin Lonnie Miller recreated a scene from Nancy
Picard's short story of a terrified woman trapped in
the Flint Hills and an ominous stranger on a Harley.

What if that car in the distance carries a drunken or
drugged driver? What if the single cotter pin holding on the
wheel breaks and the vehicle comes lurching into your
lane? Distances close so rapidly on the prairie, especially
on a narrow, rain-slicked two-lane road. Whoosh! and the
car is past. You are safe until the next set of headlights
looms in the misty darkness...

Cows really are kind of spooky when they look at you.
Especially when shot on infra-red film. Will it clear up
or become a torrential downpour? Will there be time to
dash back to the car for some semblance of safety?

Another former photo assistant, Kathy Wismer, agreed
to hike this hill in the Kansas prairie. No matter how
much weight one puts on, the mere human is but a spec
in this world. I hasten to add that Kathy is actually
rather skinny, at least she was the last time I saw her...

Ah, the final resting place on the prairie. Some of the
grave stones had dates in the 1800's

"Let's get out in the country away from it all" is a typical
urban dweller cry. Yes, far away from neighbors and
most crime. Yet also far away from vital services, like
hospitals and police. How long would it take the
sheriff to get to this cozy spot on the edge of the wood?
Remember Truman Capote's In Cold Blood?

The essential prairie since the white
humans took over: their ubiquitous fence,
frames the eternal sky and the earth.

The American Bison, or more commonly known as the
buffalo, are "just plain dumb and mean by any
human standards" I said in the Star Magazine piece.
One, solamente uno, person wrote a letter to the
editor proclaiming that their bison "Were tame and
loving. One even comes to the back door for hand-fed
treats." I was, quite frankly, hoping for a little more buzz...
Where is the ASPCA when you need it?

Of all the photos I shot in my quest for
scary, this one I can most relate to.
There has always been something a little
menacing about bare trees against a bald,
grey sky.

It is, after all, the sun and sky that drive life on the prairie.
Massive momma clouds portend a greater danger-
maybe hail, strong winds or even a tornado.

The concept of "The Scary Prairie" evolved during a conversation with local internationally-acclaimed, award-winning book author Nancy Picard. I was photographing her for some magazine, don't recall which one... She is a mystery writer to her very soul; I am fascinated with strange stuff, and so our talk naturally drifted in the direction of ghosties, things that go bump in the night, and the psychology of fear.

At length we wandered into the subject of some sort of a possible collaboration of her words and my photos.

She had written a short story years back that told the tale of a woman who had moved to the solitary, wind-swept, bleak world of the Kansas Flint Hills. I don't recall why the woman was there, but I imagine that if you check Nancy's web site,, there might be a link to the story. It is a real page-turner.

Anyway, to give a synopsis: The woman was terrified of the vast, open prairie. Something about the empty space created a feeling of dread. She kept having this fantasy nightmare of a menacing stranger on a motorcycle. The figure and his Harley were roaring down the gravel road in front of her fragile wood frame house, which on the infinite prairie was obvious, exposed and vulnerable. Just like her.

The dark, foreboding image came to reality one day and.... I will not spoil the ending for you.

So, why not do a series of my photos and Nancy's words about how frightening the prairie can be, maybe even making it into a book?

We both loved the idea, and in fact I began to shoot, all black and white, as I traveled dusty, dry, stark Kansas on other assignments. This went on for more than two years. By then, Nancy had gotten involved in other more pressing work and I figured I had done about all I knew how to do with the subject.

It took a little research. What was in that woman's mind in Nancy's story that made Kansas so frightening? Most find it merely boring, the state that most perfectly defines fly over country. As I searched I found some pretty strange phobias. There is one for fear of anything new, Neophobia; fear of dark or night, Nyctophobia; fear of dirt, Rhypophobia; fear of frogs, Batrachophobia; fear of open spaces, Agoraphobia-that one was a bingo!; fear of trees, Dendrophobia, and on and on. I reasoned that if I could somehow visually interpret some of those phobias, I would be on the right track.

"The Scary Prairie" subject and the negatives (yes, it was all film) were filed away with the contact sheets for nearly a decade.

Then one day as I was discussing possible photo exhibits with Sabrina Staires, the idea popped into my alleged mind: Why not do "The Scary Prairie" on the wall instead of on the pages of a book?

Sabrina, one of the most talented young photographers in town, by the way, ("and a former photo assistant", he said with considerable pride) graciously allowed me to display the mini-photo story of the prairie in her Landon Gallery and Sabrina Staires Studio at 329 Southwest Boulevard in Kansas City.

A number of talented photographers have rendered Kansas The Bland State with the touch of an artist: delicate spring wildflowers flutter in the every-constant prairie breeze, clouds of all variety in unlimited colors hover above the gently rolling Flint Hills, a solitary old wodden windmill is occasionally included in the landscape for visual relief. Yes, folks like Wes Lyle, Patricia Duncan, Kevin Sink and others have seen beauty where others have seen only dullness.

While I have tremdous respect for these image-makers and their work, I submit that making Kansas look really good is akin to creating an appealing still-life photo of, say a slice of bread. There is little inherent loveleness in either the bread or the Kansas landscape. There is in fact, a certain raw ugliness, both in the bread and in Kansas.

That is what I was trying to capture-the raw ugliness of the Kansas prairie. The sullen greyness of the continuing, overwhelming presence of the open sky. The danger just under the surface, as seen in the piece of sharp barbed wire or the unseen rattlesnake crouching under the limestone rock. It may all appear serene, even peaceful, but it is in reality just the opposite.

Some psyches, either over tuned or somehow cross wired can pick up on the two faces of the state: the safely of the sheltering sky that can turn to dread in a powerful thunderstorm or tornado; the restful and endless vistas across the rolling hills, hills that are filled with things that either bite or sting; and finally, the sense of solitude from the aloness of it all, to the sudden, violent interruption by another human, far from what urbanities call law and order.

Whew, that IS pretty scary...

The exhibit was great fun to produce and it is always a kick to meet and greet the friends, friends of friends, family and just passers-by.

Some of the photos from that show are presented herewith.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Prequel to my checkered photography career

Random image: Light The Night Walk,
Corporate Woods.

Random image: Dilapidated Joplin,
Missouri Santa Fe depot.

Random Image: Grandson Jacob Krafft in school per-

Random image: Old Sears store on the Country Club
Plaza, Christmas 1960

Country Club Plaza holiday lights.

Not a user-friendly winter has this been for Kansas Citians.

Imagine spending it in a car...


I never saw my dad until I was six years old. He was "in for the duration" of World War II, attached to an Army Air Corps unit in the South Pacific.

I lived with mom, grandma Miller and uncle Roy Miller (yes, I was named after him) on Spruce Street on KC's east side, and every night we would gather 'round the RCA table radio listening to reports of the war from Edward R. Murrow in London, punctuated with the deep baritone chimes of Big Ben in the background. We never knew exactly which small island my dad was on at any given moment. When we would hear of a "fierce jungle battle" or "planes shot down" over some tiny atoll whose name we had never heard before, we held our collective breaths.

But, like all wars this one too was finally over. Dad (a stranger to me, really) returned. For years thereafter this extended family still lived together, getting our lives back.

Then one day an old army buddy of dad's wrote with a business proposition: "Come to Michigan and help me build boats for all this post-war demand. We'll get rich!" Seemed like a good idea at the time, so mom and dad invested their meager savings in this venture, and away we went to Three Rivers Michigan.

Actually, we lived in a tiny cabin on a lake about 25 miles from Three Rivers. There were long fishing docks and boat launching jetties that extended out over the crystal clear water. The water was so clear, so clean in those days that I could shine my Ray-O-Vac flashlight into the depths at night and watch huge Muskies swimming about. That two years we were there was the only time in my life I ever gained weight. It was an outdoor paradise for an eight-year-old and all I did in the sweet summer months was fish, chase butterflies and explore the surrounding woods. And eat. Winter was a different story of course. We had to stock up on everything, laying in at least a two weeks supply from Three Rivers. The road to town was not much of one and the snow plow only came by every so often.

At length, the boat business went belly-up, so we packed all our worldly possessions into the 1939 Dodge and headed back to Kansas City.

It was a bad idea to come home, as it turned out, but probably the best of the alternatives at hand.

We arrived in Kansas City just in time for the tail end of the 1950 flood. Old timers will recall that there were two major floods back then: The one most remembered, and most severe, in 1951, and the one not so well publicized, in 1950.

We had no money. Dad had no job. Mom never worked outside the home and never drove.

So we took up residence in the car in Swope Park. I can pinpoint the exact location of our street camping days: On Gregory, 1,000 yards from the Union Pacific tracks.

Different world back then. No fear of getting caught in a crossfire between two rival gangs or a drug deal gone bad. In fact, the police actually watched over us.

There was no help available from the Red Cross or Salvation Army. All of their resources were stretched to the limit helping flood victims. Just when we thought we might get a break come spring, the 1951 flood hit.

The first part of that summer the temperature did not get above 85 degrees. It was dark, grey, sullen, and drizzled a lot.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but things were desperate. As a kid, it began as kind of a great adventure for me. Oh, it was inconvenient having to walk a few hundred feet to the public restroom and using the creek for a wash tub was a hassle, but overall it seemed, well, rather fun. At first.

The full realization of our plight hit me the day that we had to split a hot dog three ways for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

My dad finally got a job at a filling station on Troost. The building still stands and is sort of a maintenance shed for the University of Missouri at Kansas City. The bad part was, we did not have the money to get an apartment, so mom and I had to stay in the car all day, parked around the corner and out of sight of the owner. Later in the summer the weather turned hot and humid and I had what I now know was heat prostration several times.

This too passed, and eventually we were living once again with the extended family, with three additions. My uncle had married for the second time, so his wife Mary, her girl Cherie and their dog Blackie joined us all in a shotgun house at 1935 North Valley in Kansas City, Kansas. The street featured one of the steepest hills I had ever seen, a dream sledding spot, but really, really tough to peddle to the top in spring and summer.

When I got my own dog (who was constantly being harassed by Blackie), I wanted to take some pictures of him. I received a Baby Brownie camera for Christmas and shot a bunch of rolls of my little fuzzy, treasure pup that I named Spec.

One day I was rushing out of the house to ride my bike to the corner drug store to take my film in for processing. My uncle looked up from reading his newspaper and said "You know, you can process that film yourself."

Screech! Stopped in my tracks. What! I can actually perform this magical process myself? I was amazed, astounded and asked for an Eastman Kodak Tri-Chem processing kit for Christmas. My uncle Roy gave it to me.

Thus began my checkered photography career...

Epilogue: I did not learn for many, many years the reason we did not go to live with
grandma and grandpa Inman in Kansas City after our return from Michigan.

Grandma and mom did not get on well, to put it gently. They hated each other in fact.
Early on, long before the return from Michigan when we lived with grandma and grandpa briefly, she and mom got into an intense
argument which resulted in grandma hitting mom in the back of the head with an iron.

Pretty scary stuff for a kid to watch.

Mom carried the scar the rest of her life. I think that grandma probably did too...