Bumpy ride: rodeo, Monroe County Fairgrounds, Albia, 2004. Danny Wilcox Frazier
Bumpy ride: rodeo, Monroe County Fairgrounds, Albia, 2004. Danny Wilcox Frazier

Holding On

Photographs by Danny Wilcox Fraser.
January 31, 2008
 

Sitting in a darkened classroom during his first college photography course, Danny Wilcox Frazier watched images from Robert Frank's seminal book The Americans projected on a screen. The black-and-white pictures, taken by Frank in the mid-1950s during a two-year project as he crisscrossed the U.S., seemed immediately familiar to Frazier. Frank's photojournalistic approach to capturing people going about their daily lives revealed undercurrents of ennui and dislocation. As Jack Kerouac wrote in the book's foreword, "[Robert Frank] sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world."

Frank's sober vision of America resonated with Frazier, an Iowa native who grew up witnessing cultural tensions and transitions in his own backyard. As a professional freelance photographer, Frazier went on to shoot for The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, Mother Jones, and Forbes, among others. And though his travels took him around the world, including stints in Africa and the Middle East, Frazier could not escape the pull of his home state as subject. For four years, he photographed the rural landscapes and shifting socioeconomics of Iowa, from desolate stretches of nothingness to an Amish family walking silently down a dirt road and Hispanic migrant farmers harvesting cantaloupes.

The project culminated in the publication of Driftless: Photographs From Iowa, which was selected from more than 400 entries as the winner of the 2006 Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography. Published by Duke University Press in conjunction with CDS in November 2007, Driftless won high praise from Robert Frank, Frazier's unwitting inspiration and judge for the Honickman Prize competition. Frank noted that he was drawn to Frazier's work because of his "passionate photographs without sentimentality.… [H]is work reaches out: Let me tell your story, it is important."

Frazier says that he chose to focus on rural communities to document a way of life that is often ignored by the mainstream media. "During winter in the Midwest, one can drive along endless gravel roads divided by windblown fields of black earth as dark as tar," he says. "Snow drifts along fencerows, leaving the landscape a harsh contrast of black and white. But the feelings of openness that so defines the Midwest's rural landscape is being replaced by one of emptiness…. As the economies of rural communities across America continue to fail, abandonment is becoming commonplace; these photographs document the human effect of this economic shift.