Locomotive Engineer, Lewis Ableidinger, photographed the Midwest from North Dakota to Oklahoma and from Illinois to Eastern Colorado on his vacations from 2016 to 2020.
Carrying a 4x5 view camera he set out to make a record of his interactions in that wonderful open space away from the larger cities.
Lewis, born in 1983 in a small farming community in east central North Dakota, was taught piano as a child and played the saxophone in high school. When he attended Minnesota State University Moorhead, he got a degree in Graphic Communications. There he took a music class and retaught himself the piano, getting another degree in Jazz Performance.
“Initially I was only interested in photographing the railroad. Then I saw the book In Search of Lake Wobegon by Garrison Keillor that featured the photographs of Richard Olsenius. It really opened my eyes. Olsenius’ photographs made me more interested in trying to create a sense of place, or an atmosphere of place. A bit later I was introduced to the work of Frank Gohlke and Robert Adams. They expanded on that and introduced concepts like conflict, tension and asked questions about the world around us. I still find Adams’ work complex and hard to pin down despite the seemingly simple composition and subject matter, but that’s what probably makes it such good work,” Lewis said.
Lewis views the act of photographing to be like jazz improvisation - a way of responding to what comes his way. He does not go out there with a road map, a game plan or a preconceived position. Rather, it initially is a response to the compositional elements. There is a visual democracy in that act, giving weight to all the shapes present with the hope for some level of visual cohesion, but with the over arching goal of evoking a sense of that particular place.
It is in the sequencing of photographs that the parallel of Jazz and Photography comes into focus.
And like one of Lewis’ favorite jazz musician Brad Mehldau, Lewis explores, identifies themes, and then returns to them with another variation on the same idea. Lewis said of Mehldau, “He would find connections and reconnect with them later on in the piece. Also there’s more open space in his work like in the countryside. I like that. His work has a melodic flow to it, not as angular as that of Thelonius Monk.
“I have included people in my photographs, because they populate the landscape – they are part of it. It wasn’t a decision that I made along the way. I always knew they would be part of it, as I was.
“They would often say, ‘That camera must be 100 years old.’ And they thought it curious and were very patient with me as I set up the cumbersome camera to make one exposure.”
In the book Wolf Willow Wallace Stegner writes, “Expose a child to a particular landscape at his susceptible time and he will perceive in shapes of it until he dies.” So for some, at the right time, a lasting bond is made. For Lewis it came from his early experiences at the family farm near Kensal, North Dakota.
The imprint on Lewis of that exposure growing up on the prairie is evident as seen through his lyrically rhythmic images. Lewis drives through the plains an hour and 15 minutes each way to and from work. During this time he listens to Jazz. Driving is a spatial right brain function and for Lewis, a fitting stage for Mehldau and Monk.
These are not judgemental images nor are they sentimental or nostalgic - grieving the passing of the rural life of his childhood. Rather they are honest and of that place.
That they are made with respect, care, and artistry is a testament to Lewis and his time in the flyover country of the heartland.
Bad Medicine Lake, Minnesota
“Is was all we knew, it was all we had, it was all we wanted, and it was good enough.”
Fred Eaglesmith “White Rose”