Wheatcountry Afterword, by Jay Dusard
There was something mesmerizing about the way heartland sod rolled off the moldboards of a gang plow. You’d twist around in your tractor seat to behold the absolute continuum of the transformation of sod to dirt. Reluctantly, you kept checking ahead to monitor your course, keeping the big right-rear chevron-cleated tire tracking perfectly in the furrow, six inches lower than the ground to the left, creating the familiar half-a-bubble-off angle that stayed with you throughout days of plowing. Of all the acts of tillage that a tractor-enabled farm youth of the 1940s could commit—plowing, disking, harrowing, planting, cultivating—plowing was by far the most addictive.
Don Kirby and I literally grew up turning the surface of earth upside down—he in northwestern Missouri and I across the muddy Mississippi in southern Illinois. Our families tilled the soil for livelihood, for survival. I never remember anyone questioning what we did, or how we did it, in that once-prairie landscape. In that half-century ago, I’m sure I figured that the gridlines of fences and roads, the land-measuring increments of rods and chains and quarter-miles (and my striving to keep crop rows true to the geometry) had been part of the deal forever.
Geometry, the absence thereof, or the mixture of both conditions, is fundamental to the photographer’s attraction to and assessment of subject matter. What is geometric in flat country, a straight line for instance, is no longer geometrically true in rolling country, especially as it appears on the ground glass of the camera of an earthbound photographer. The rolling landscape in Kirby’s wheat country defies the inherently parallel marks laid down by the machinery of agriculture. It doesn’t seem to matter whether the farmers ran their tractors, combines, or swathers in straight lines, or followed land contours; to the camera, everything curves. Sweeps and curves are the dominant structural theme of Don’s wheat country photographic vision, often a vision of equivalence, in harmony with that of Alfred Stieglitz. The repeating, undulating lines of windrows of downed bluegrass are “equivalent” to the swoops and whorls of giant fingerprints. Contiguous fields become interlocking jigsaw puzzle pieces—yins and yangs on an exceedingly grand scale. The direction a combine ran determines light versus dark in alternating bands of stubble. Photographically boosted in contrast, fields of wheat stubble resemble worm’s-eye views of gargantuan ropes.
Amber waves of grain this book ain’t! While wheatfield upon wheatfield upon wheatfield is shown, these photographs are not about wheat, or wheat farming, or the grain that builds strong bodies eight ways. No farmers or their families, not even tractors, trucks, or combines, are depicted. The pictures herein document only intensely personal acts of recognition, selection, and transformation. The picture story without the story! I like it! Pure design, Brother Kirby! An eminently laudable application of the eminently supple and succulent medium of monochromatic photography. Since our visible world is one of color, a photographer who loads black and white film into a camera has, knowingly or unknowingly, taken a giant step into the world of abstraction. And to me, design and abstraction are eminently compatible bedfellows.
I’m convinced that a good photographer sees in two dimensions, with an ultra-heightened awareness of how three-dimensional reality projects onto a picture plane. Further, a black and white photographer not only sees in values of gray, but knows that the contrast between these perceived values can be modified considerably—nay, drastically—through the manipulation of exposure, development, and printing.
When Ansel Adams codified the venerable photographic truism, expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights, into his Zone System of coordinating film exposure and development, he gave us a truly understandable and flexible means of achieving what he called “departures from reality.” Don has used his medium’s inherent flexibility to great advantage, taking considerable “liberties” at times, to clarify contrapuntal relationships, intensify moods, and enliven the harmonics of skies.
I drove through the southwestern portion of Kirby’s wheat country nearly two decades ago, on my quest to photograph cowboys on up the trail in British Columbia and Alberta. In zooming through, I remember the open, rolling luminosity of fields beyond fields. Perhaps I saw some of the reality, but certainly none of the departures therefrom—the manner of visualizations that jolted Don into commencing the marvelous body of images that inhabit this volume.
I met Don Kirby in November, 1981, in Page, Arizona, not long after skirting the wheatlands that lay between American and Canadian cow outfits—curiously enough, several years before Don discovered photographic gold there. He was a participant in the first of nineteen canyon country photography workshops that Bruce Barnbaum and I, along with a rotation of third instructors, taught in the Page area. He showed up at the second one, then the third—each time with an impressive and growing portfolio of photographs. We couldn’t help but notice how much, and how well, he voluntarily worked with other participants out in the landscape. Don has never admitted to angling for a job, but we eagerly put him on the payroll, as the fourth (and permanent) instructor. Turned out that he was an integral part of the team for the entire nineteen years. Don Kirby is as devoted to photography as anyone I know. Over the years of working and teaching with him, I’ve learned not to be fooled by his relaxed demeanor in the field. Appearing to amble, he prowls! I check out his setups and am amazed, sometimes envious. He relishes learning new territory—probably as much as he will relish his photographic communion with it. He’s willing to do the hard darkroom time so often required to romance the “goods” from a 4 by 5 inch piece of film. It’s for the best that he relinquished his seat on the old Farmall.