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Jin Lee: Wind and Prairie
Sioux City Art Center Exhibition essay
November 6 — February 6, 2005
Chris Cook, Curator

On the prairie there is sometimes a quiet so absolute that it allows one to begin again, to love the future.

— Robert Adams, To Make It Home: Photographs of the American West, 1989

The prairie path leads to the sky path; the paths are one: the continents are two; and you must make your journey from the prairies to the sky.

— William A. Quayle, The Prairie and the Sea, 1905

Since the mid-1990s, artist Jin Lee has developed numerous photographic projects that document and explore her relationship with the natural landscape of Illinois. Born in Korea, Lee immigrated to the United States with her family at a young age, and has resided in Chicago for the past two decades. She first encountered the relatively flat, expansive prairies of central Illinois during her two-hour commute to Illinois State University in Normal, where she holds a teaching position. At first Lee experienced the land as many “flatlanders” do: at a distanced, detached view from the highway. But she soon began to thoughtfully consider the land around her as she drove, paying close attention to its contours, textures, and the subtle variations of light and color. Over time, she became intrigued by her surroundings, and began thinking about how we normally experience, observe, and understand nature. Moreover, Lee started contemplating her own relationship with the Illinois landscape and how it informs her sense of self and being in the world.

Jin Lee: Wind and Prairie features two ongoing series of photographs that document the artist’s investigation of a particular Illinois landscape. Photographed in 2003 and early 2004, both series are the result of Lee exploring and closely examining the tallgrass prairie preserves of northern and central Illinois. With a twin-lens, medium-format camera, she carefully observes and records the internal, natural conditions of the land. For her stunning, sharply focused images, she hones in on tight groupings of native flowers, grasses, and vegetation, and captures the persistent wind that animates the terrain. Each photograph accurately reveals subtle details, such as the shape and texture of flowering plants, and the gradual change of color and light experienced over time in the prairie. By observing and recording such visual nuances in an almost scientific fashion, Lee identifies the distinctive properties that form and define the life of the prairie. As a result, her images aim to present the totality—the actual essence—of the tallgrass prairie, identifying it as a unique and special place.

This exhibition is comprised of twenty photographs from Lee’s Prairie (Four Season) series and four images from her Wind series. In the gallery, the photographs are evenly spaced and arranged in a long row, mirroring the land’s horizon line that threads through many of the images. At first, viewers may feel the serial nature of her two bodies of work undermines the capacity of any particular photograph to make a primary imprint. It is important, however, to observe Lee’s photographs as a group in order to grasp the subtle cadence of the prairie landscape. Lined up in the gallery, we can consider each picture individually while witnessing the slight variations among images that speak of the artist’s methodical progression in experiencing and documenting a specific time and place. Moreover, all of the images combined reveal the complex nature of the prairie landscape. The depth of the prairie as Lee understands it cannot be rendered adequately in a single, iconic image: tallgrass prairies simply do not lend themselves to singularity. Their highly nuanced nature demands multiplicity in representation.

Lee’s photographs exist alongside the modern and contemporary oeuvre of a diverse group of artists that work in large series to systematically record the specifics of a place. German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher have spent decades recording old, industrial structures such as water tanks and factories that are slowly disappearing from cities across the world. Similarly, Olafur Eliasson has been photographing Iceland in differently themed series since the mid-1990s, carefully mapping and recording the natural phenomena of his native country. In the U.S., photographers such as Art Sinsabaugh and Terry Evans have produced in-depth series depicting the Midwestern plains. Titled Midwest Landscape Group, Sinsabaugh’s series of black-and-white photographs from the early 1960s capture a particular time and place in the open spaces of the Illinois landscape, documenting human presence through the inclusion of rows of power lines, plowed fields, and grain elevators. Using a massive 12-x-20-inch view camera, Sinsabaugh experimented with format and framing to produce long, narrow prints that dramatically emphasize the extensive horizons of the land.

Chicago-based Evans has photographed the prairie grasslands of Illinois, Kansas, and Oklahoma since the late 1970s. Through experience, she has recognized the necessity of working in a series when photographing the prairie, explaining that “the Prairie is a subtle landscape; it demands our attention. When we look at it closely, we can see amazing details. Sounds, smell, the wind, the light changing every second—there's no way a photograph can capture that totality of experience.” Evans’s earliest series of photographs focused on the undisturbed prairie, including detailed shots of the earth's floor that revealed the intricate weaving and patterns of prairie grasses. By the late 1980s, Evans took to the air to gain a new perspective of this complex landscape and to observe human impact on the prairie. Her series of expansive, aerial photographs exhibit how humans use, transform, and live on the grasslands, including images of farmland, old cemeteries, winding highways, and retired bombing ranges.

Jin Lee’s Prairie (Four Season) series focuses on the intrinsic beauty of native grasses, plants, and wildflowers characteristic to the tallgrass prairies of Illinois. For this series, she closely studied and documented the flora of the region over the course of an entire year. Organized by season, these four groups of 24-x-20-inch photographs capture the natural shifting of color as the land softly changes through its cycle, and reveal to us the slow fluctuation of the shape, form, and overall density of the prairie. As a whole, her Prairie (Four Season) series offers a comprehensive depiction of the quiet evolution and transformation of life in the tallgrass prairie.

In one group of Lee’s Prairie photographs, the early days of spring are announced by dense clusters of bright green grasses, patches of lush leaves, and an abundance of emerging stems. The intense color of the plants suggests their infancy and energy, as if they are just awakening from a winter slumber. In the center of one image, a tall, thin stem gently supports three tiny yellow flowers, possibly the first born of the season. Set against the overcast sky behind them, the yellow petals subtly contrast against the surrounding sea of green and seem to reach toward the distant sky. Throughout the series, we witness the fields slowly transforming into a plethora of life and color as spring turns to summer, with its unruly spectacle of bold colors, intense growth, and plentiful foliage. Lee accurately portrays the natural vitality in numerous photographs. In one image, she focused on a tight cluster of bright purple flowers supported by dark green stems and yellow leaves. This radiant swatch of color neighbors a tall grouping of grasses and fragile, lengthy stems that hold tiny buds: all of this is set against a warm, muted sky. Overall, Lee's spring and summer images present a prairie that is growing and gradually maturing into a tightly packed environment, brimming with diversity in color and life.

In turn, Lee's photographs of the fall season capture a gradual digression of brilliance in the prairie. As the flora slowly shed their blossoms and leaves, various shades of brown invade the once-dense plots of green. In one work, most of the blades of grass in a relatively thin stand have changed from dark green to light brown, and the leaves of many nearby flowering plants have turned a deep purple; the leaves seem to retreat back upon themselves and bend toward the soil. While looking at this image in the context of Lee's other depictions of the fall prairie, we may sense a feeling of preparation—perhaps a hunkering down for the approaching frosts. With her stark photographs of brown, narrow stems, Lee declares the arrival of winter. The remaining leaves appear brittle and old and are tightly curled, waiting to be stripped off by a quick gust of wind. These photographs illustrate how the prairie thins out during the winter. She emphasizes this natural quality by photographing from the ground up, allowing the overcast sky to function as a backdrop on which to study the lonely stems. In each image, the negative space of the sky seems to push forward, reducing the overall sense of depth in the picture plane. Consequently, the winter images appear more like abstractions of nature than true representations. As life slowly slips away from the winter landscape, Lee’s photographs convey the still, quiet, and sense of void of the prairie.

While Lee’s Prairie (Four Season) series effectively records the visual identity of the Illinois tallgrass prairies, her Wind series documents another important, natural element of its landscape. Through the relentless push and pull of the earth and the soft rattling of leaves, the wind animates the land, providing it with movement and energy. Out in the open fields of the prairie, it is nearly impossible to avoid the wind’s steady pulse: it is omnipresent in its expansive and perpetual nature, steadfastly connecting the sky and the earth. In describing her experience of this natural force, Lee explained that it is exhilarating to witness the wind’s power, and depending on the context, she considers it either enjoyable—a fresh, cool breeze on a warm day—or absolutely frustrating and uncomfortable, such as during an icy, winter blast.

Lee’s Wind series consists of four untitled chromogenic photographs: one 39-x-41-inch print, and three 43-x-52-inch prints, which are grouped together as a triptych. Each clear, sharp photograph carefully records the gradual movement of tall prairie grasses, shrubs, and short trees shifting and turning in the wind. The smallest of the four photographs is the most dynamic, capturing the full force of the prairie wind. Its entire picture frame is cramped with a dense grouping of tree branches and tall grasses that bend dramatically to the right. In the upper quarter of the image, tree tops shudder under the direction of the gusty wind. The stillness of the physical photograph contrasts significantly with the motion it depicts, effectively emphasizing the raw power of the wind. Coupled with the large scale of the print, the dramatic, natural force harnessed within the image can evoke an uneasy or tense feeling in viewers.

The wind's presence is made visible through Lee's careful recordings of its untamed effects on the grasses and shrubs. According to the artist, photographing the wind is not an easy venture. Because of its ephemeral and temporal nature, she explains, “you have to cultivate your attention to capture it.” This is best expressed in her Untitled triptych, which creates a cinematic sequence of the wind’s action. When viewed successively, the movement of the trees unfolds from one photograph to the next, thus visually re-creating the actual motion of the foliage. In the first photograph, a gust comes from the left, forcing the tall grasses and trees to bend and curve to the right. In the next, the wind blows from the opposite direction, causing the plants to follow suit. These images provide an intimate study of separate, but related, increments of natural motion in time and space. By freezing the individual movements of the grasses and trees, Lee provides an opportunity to study their delicate shifts in direction, shape, and color as they waver in the wind.

In order to truly realize the diversity and abundant life of the tallgrass prairie, Lee enters the landscape and looks low and long to provide an unusual perspective of the land. She photographs the native vegetation at knee level, dramatically lowering the angle of vision. From this perspective, she offers a comprehensive view of the myriad shapes, sizes, and species of the grasses and wildflowers. With these close, frontal views, she provides factual information about the prairie landscape by thoroughly recording visual nuances—details, textures, and colors of plants—and carefully depicting the changing climate, through the light, sky, and wind. Perhaps best defined as a pseudo-scientific investigation, Lee’s photographs appear as objective studies that express a particular patience, precision, control, and sensitivity to the accurate documentation of the prairie and its soft, quiet transformation over time.

Just as Lee was attracted to the sensuous landscape, she compels viewers to approach and visually “enter” her photographs to see all of the prairie’s surprising, subtle details: the intricate and various tonal qualities found in a flower’s petals or the complex structure of a curved leaf. At close proximity, an intimate relationship may develop between the observer and the observed, the subject and the object. Coupled with the great amount of visual information provided, Lee’s photographs may remind us of the small, intricate botanical drawings and prints of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. During the age of reason, many naturalists, botanists, and scientists actively collected and studied exotic and diverse species of plants for their natural antidotal qualities. Wild specimens were harvested, closely examined, and then given to artists, who would create intricately detailed depictions of them. These images were often referred to as “plant portraits” because of their intimate size and the accurate renderings of the subjects. For many, the beautiful and careful representations of nature provided a perfect balance between objective observation and artistic expression, allowing viewers to equally enjoy them for their information and their elegance and charm.

Like the accurate portrayals of nature found in botanical art, Lee’s photographs are both beautiful and informative. They reflect a rational and objective approach to observing and recording the tallgrass prairie, and, as a result, reveal its inherently complex and biologically diverse ecosystem. While meandering through dense stretches of wildflowers and grasses, Lee employs her camera to record and organize a complex place. She tightly crops her images, focusing on specific areas of the prairie, intimately documenting the land's polyculture of plant life. This technique creates an overwhelmingly dense yet well-balanced composition. Each picture frame overflows with visual stimuli, forcing our eyes to dart haphazardly across the photograph’s surface—from corner to corner, edge to edge. In this way, many of Lee’s photographs seem void of a specific focal point. By treating each bud, stalk, and tree branch with equal importance, she creates an all-over, general landscape that denounces a sense of hierarchy or centrality. This parallels a theme found in another historic era: during the nineteenth century, many individuals associated the land’s biodiversity with a tolerance of diversity and equality in society, and the tallgrass prairie became a befitting symbol of American democracy.

Lee’s unusual, insider approach to depicting the Illinois prairie diverges from conventional landscape imagery. The traditional, historical genre commonly includes paintings and photographs that focus on the expansive quality of the land and sky, such as found in the renowned nineteenth-century Romantic landscape paintings of Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole, and John Constable. Twentieth-century American painters and photographers from the Midwest, including John Steuart Curry, Laura Gilpin, Gary Irving, Keith Jacobshagen, and Grant Wood, have also represented the region's landscape from a high or distanced perspective, emphasizing the land’s vast openness and seemingly endless horizons. This removed perspective provides a more generalized, and arguably abstracted representation of the naturally complex land. With Lee’s photographs, we begin to grasp the complexity of the prairie.

Her low, close frontal views offer an intimate look at the prairie, which is relatively unfamiliar to most because of our often distant and infrequent relationship with it. Through the development of modern transportation, contemporary experience of the Illinois landscape is generally passive and removed. For many travelers, Illinois, and possibly the entire Midwest for that matter, is regarded as a tiresome trek between coasts. After observing indifferent bus passengers traveling through the state, acclaimed naturalist and prairie preservationist Aldo Leopold noted, “To them Illinois is only the sea on which they sail to ports unknown.” Chicago artist Roger Brown’s paintings such as Quilted Landscape (1973) and Citizens Surveying the Flat Landscape (1987) include small, awkward figures and zooming automobiles in stylized fields; his work is meant to illustrate the uncomfortable presence of people in the land, and how the grasslands are often considered a foreign place between destinations. In reality, many people have a fragmented understanding of the history and current state of the original landscape of Illinois.

Illinois is often referred to as the “Prairie State” because, when it became a state in 1818, the soil swelled with nearly nine million acres of tall prairie grasses and wildflowers. The state is included in the rich eastern section of tallgrass prairie that extends roughly through Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, and Missouri. And while short and tallgrass prairies are North America's characteristic landscape, less than one percent of the country's natural prairie survives today. In Illinois, most of the remaining tallgrass prairie exists in isolated pockets, broken by threading highways, vast fields of crops and livestock, and developed communities. Many of the largest parcels of tallgrass prairie are protected as state preserves where dedicated naturalists and botanists maintain what evidence remains of the state's original landscape. Even so, after numerous visits to the Illinois prairies and preserves, Lee has determined that “one can no longer get truly lost in the prairie; the sounds from the highway are always nearby.”

Her photographs do not focus on the fragmented reality of the prairie landscape. They do not elicit a sense of loss or absence, nor do they speak of its slow erasure. While Lee is sympathetic to the landscape’s current condition and concerned about present land-use issues that might threaten its recovery, she does not intend her photographs to be nostalgic or sentimental. Instead, her straight, pristine, and seemingly objective photographs suggest an almost scientific classification of the tallgrass prairie, functioning purely as records of its inherent properties: native flowers, plants, grasses, and turbulent winds. By capturing the original spirit of this place, the artist presents us with a fresh understanding of a landscape that is often considered monotonous: she renews our interest and appreciation for the land. This increased awareness may encourage us to build personal connections with our natural environment. By nurturing relationships with the land, we can develop a heightened sense of place, and, in turn, blossom a new sense of self. In this light, the prairie landscape can be understood as a source of self-renewal and awareness—a place that liberates, inspires, and as William Quayle expresses, leads us to the path in the sky.

Jin Lee lives and works in Chicago and Bloomington, Illinois.

Christopher Cook
Curator
Sioux City Art Center


Joni L. Kinsey, Plain Pictures: Images of the American Prairie (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996), 165.

Terry Evans, “Terry Evans: Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, Oklahoma,” in In Response to Place: Photographs from the Nature Conservancy's Last Great Places (Boston: Bulfinch Press, 2001), 68.

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949), 119.

Tony Hiss, “Turning Bullets into Birds,” Disarming the Prairie: Terry Evans (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1998), 15.