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Just some random stuff I have been working on.
Note: This blog post was originally written and published for The Huffington post. You can see the original article here.
I have been fortunate enough to do a bit of traveling in my life. Starting with my first international trip in college, armed with my camera and a curiosity for the world, I took an immediate liking to travel photography. Over the few years I have been traveling and taking photos I have come to a few realizations about the world around me.
People are inherently good
It’s easy as Americans to sit here and assume that the rest of the world hates us. Watching the news can start to make you feel as though the outside world is a mean, scary place. But guess what? If humans are so horrible, civilization as we know it would have imploded a long time ago. If travel photography has taught me anything it’s that people all over the world are inherently kind, and care for one another. I have a long list of instances where people have come up to me on the streets and offered to help because I looked lost, or confused. They seemed to genuinely care; even in places where we are constantly told the natives are not welcoming (I’m looking at you, France). So don’t be frightened to travel, the world isn’t as terrifying as it might seem on TV.
Photography can be an excuse to engage with culture
Photography can be a great excuse to engage with the culture you are visiting. The thing is, this work doesn’t require you to travel to some far-flung corner of the earth, it could mean engaging with the people at your local Little League game. Photography can give you an excuse to talk with people you may not have otherwise, or visit locations or events you typically wouldn’t have. Photography can be an equalizer. Many of us all over the world enjoy taking pictures. It gives us a common talking point, or if there’s a language barrier it opens up the opportunity to communicate visually. The point being, don’t use the camera as a device to hide behind, use it as a conduit to engage with what is in front of the lens.
Life tends to repeat itself
I’m consistently surprised at how life tends to unfold in front of me in repeatable ways. When I get back from a shoot there are at least a few photos that remind me of photos I have shot before. It doesn’t matter if I am in China or England. Yes, this could partially be because of how I see the world, but I like to think of it as something slightly different. I like to think the reason life repeats itself in my photos is because there is a commonality we all share as humans. Elderly people sit on park benches together, people kiss in the street, parents hold their child’s hand as they walk down the sidewalk—all of these things happen over and over all around the world. The beauty of travel photography is that it forces you to slow down and look. Moments like these may pass you by if you aren’t consciously looking; photography requires you actively observe. Below are images taken in different countries on two different trips that I found to look oddly similar.
Travel allows you to continually fall in love with the place you’re from
Over time people can become disenchanted with the place they live. When you’re shoulder-deep, day in and day out, with life’s struggles, you can lose perspective. I have found that travel photography not only gives me a new perspective on the place I am visiting, it allows me enough space to rediscover what is great about the place that I come from, whether it’s as simple as the beautiful topography of the northeast Iowa countryside or the unlimited free refills of water at restaurants. Traveling always feels great, but I’d be lying if I said that coming back home doesn’t feel pretty fantastic after being away.
This article was originally written and published for the Huffington Post. You can read the orignal article here.
It’s the summer of 1936. America is facing one of the most economically devastating periods in its history. A mere seven years earlier, the stock market had collapsed, an event that sent ripples through the world economy, skyrocketing unemployment rates in the United States to 25 percent and crippling the American economy. And then came the drought, choking the Great Plains from any meaningful precipitation. Crops failed and farms withered so badly that the area came to be known as the Dust Bowl. This one-two punch brought much of America to its knees, grasping for some way to rebound from the onslaught of horrible luck and circumstance.
Funded by the Farm Security Administration and led by Columbia University-educated economist Roy Stryker, a group of intrepid photographers — including heavy hitters such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, and Russell Lee, were tasked with the mission of visually documenting the hardships wrought by the Great Depression and drought. They would create what Stryker dubbed a “visual encyclopedia of American life.” In the end, the FSA photographers produced more than 80,000 negatives and some of the most iconic photographs in American history. But this isn’t a story about them. This is a story about an unassuming man in rural Iowa who wound up making one of the most beautiful and prolific sets of photographs showcasing life in Iowa during the Great Depression and beyond.
Arthur Melvile Wettach was born in New Jersey in 1901. But “Pete,” as he was known, had a fascination with farming that led him to Mount Pleasant, Iowa, where he remained for the rest of his life. Pete, too, worked for the Farm Security Administration, but unlike Evans or Lange, he was hired not as a photographer, but as a county supervisor in the FSA’s tenant farmer program. Pete’s role was to work closely with famers and help them apply for government loans and aid. Yet as much as Pete loved farming, another passion was brewing as a side hobby: photography.
While the well-outfitted, commissioned FSA photography corps were traveling across America documenting life throughout the country, Pete was hauling his large-format Graflex camera everywhere he went in Iowa, photographing the farmers he worked with and the daily Iowa life he knew so well. Unlike Evans or Lange, Pete was not a transient photographer showing up one day to photograph a situation and leaving the next. Pete’s subjects were much closer to him. They were his friends, his neighbors, and his family, allowing him to create uniquely powerful and natural images of his subjects over the many years he knew and photographed them.
My mother grew up just 40 minutes from Pete’s home in Mt. Pleasant. When my mother was a little girl, Pete photographed her and the rest of her family on a number of occasions. She has always spoken very highly of him and recalls fondly the times he came to visit. “Whenever we would look out the windows of our house and see Pete’s car coming down the driveway my parents would get very excited,” she recalled. “My parents loved Pete. Everyone did really, he was so kind and easy to get along with.”
Pete’s memorable characteristics made a mark on his grandson too. Jeff Wettach grew up in Mount Pleasant and remembers outings around town:
“We often got to run errands with Grandpa around town—the post office, the local farm co-operative where he purchased his gasoline, and the drug store. That is where I learned that practically everyone in Mount Pleasant knew Grandpa. He taught us good manners, how to properly greet people, and such. Naturally, we eventually figured out that those fun activities were truly opportunities to learn and to grow, with a pretty special man...I can honestly say that Grandpa’s personal characteristics were impeccable. I never once heard a person say a negative word about Pete Wettach.”
It was perhaps his good-natured, kind personality that allowed Pete to create his remarkable photographs. The comfort level and sense of trust evident in so many of his photographs is hard to deny and would be even harder for an “outsider” to replicate. His subject matter included all aspects of Iowa life: farm work, home routines, children riding tricycles, men shaving, and countless images of livestock. It’s not the number of images or even the subject matter that make Pete’s collection impressive (though it does help), it’s the authenticity that truly makes his images standout. The FSA photography corps may have had the funding and backing of the U.S. government to travel the country, but Pete had the trust and respect of his subjects, along with genuine interest in the life of rural Iowans.
Pete never set out to create a visual history of rural Iowa, that was simply a happy byproduct of his passionate need to photograph the world around him. Unlike today, when cameras are standard hardware on every smartphone and any phone-wielding person can be a citizen journalist, photography in the 1930s was arguably more expensive and technically far more difficult than it is today. It required an investment in chemistry, space for a darkroom, equipment and time. All of which make collections such as Pete’s that much more exceptional.
Pete passed away in the late 1970s but some of his archive was compiled into a wonderful book written by Leslie A. Loveless titled “A Bountiful Harvest.” His family graciously donated many of his estimated 50,000 negatives to the State Historical Society of Iowa in Iowa City. They were kind enough to allow the use of the images found in this article, and if you would like to see more, they can be found here on their Flickr page.
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