Photographs from Iowa


Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography

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Book Pages: 120 Illustrations: 80 duotones Published: November 2007

Art and Visual Culture > Photography

Winner of the third biennial Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize
Robert Frank, Prize Judge

In Driftless, Danny Wilcox Frazier’s dramatic black-and-white photographs portray a changing Midwest of vanishing towns and transformed landscapes. As rural economies fail, people, resources, and services are migrating to the coasts and cities, as though the heart of America were being emptied. Frazier’s arresting photographs take us into Iowa’s abandoned places and illuminate the lives of those people who stay behind and continue to live there: young people at leisure, fishermen on the Mississippi, veterans on Memorial Day, Amish women playing cards, as well as more recent arrivals: Lubavitcher Hasidic Jews at prayer, Latinos at work in the fields. Frazier’s camera finds these newcomers while it also captures activities that seemingly have gone on forever: harvesting and hunting, celebrating and socializing, praying and surviving.

This collection of photographs is a portrait of contemporary rural Iowa, but it is also more that that. It shows what is happening in many rural and out-of-the-way communities all over the United States, where people find ways to get by in the wake of closing factories and the demise of family farms. Taken by a true insider who has lived in Iowa his entire life, Frazier’s photographs are rich in emotion and give expression to the hopes and desires of the people who remain, whose needs and wants are complicated by the economic realities remaking rural America. Poetic and dark but illuminated with flashes of insight, Frazier’s stunning images evoke the brilliance of Robert Frank’s The Americans.

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Driftless, shot in black-and-white film in a digital age, creates a lonely aura. Young people in trailers framed by beer-can pyramids. Harsh winter blizzards. Cold gun barrels. Old people in barren spaces. . . . Many of the photos are grainy because Frazier didn't use artificial lighting and had to 'push' the film speed. It lends a gritty reality to the shots.” — Mike Kilen, Des Moines Register

“[Frazier’s] pictures of people recall the street-kid photos of Helen Levitt, the active group images in Ben Shahn’s FSA work, and the famous book The Americans (1959), by Robert Frank, who judged the competition this book won. Elegiacism and a certain bitterness inform the album as a whole. No one looks prosperous; even the young partiers don’t seem cheery. Maybe they’ll all be living in cities in a year. Powerful stuff.” — Ray Olson, Booklist

“The book is incredible for its raw intimacy and visual sophistication. . . .” — Bryan Derballa, Wired

“Frazier presents a compelling look at life in contemporary Iowa. When chronicling just the land, Frazier portrays it in a harsh and biting manner through the use of high-contrast and grainy imagery. When documenting Iowa's people, Frazier plays the role of a fly on the wall. He is able to blend in with all sorts of characters in all types of situations, a hallmark of a well-rounded photojournalist. . . . Frazier's melancholy Driftless achieves success in the Iowan's choice to shoot in a style more concerned with content and free-flowing compositions than with the rigors of technical matters such as precise exposure and exacting horizon lines.” — Chris Sweda, Chicago Sun-Times

“Frazier’s images endeavor to shed light on the people and places that mainstream media neglects to illustrate. As rural economies fail, people and resources are migrating to the coasts and cities, altering rural America. Taken by an insider who has lived in Iowa his entire life, Frazier’s photographs show us these abandoned places and describe the lives of those people who stay behind. His approach is completely different than this spring’s news stories about Iowa’ spring flooding, which presumed that the impacts, although awful, were limited to the present; nowhere on national media were reports of the long lasting effects of the flooding on Iowa’s already unstable rural economy.” — Callie Clark-Wiren, Rain Taxi

“If Larry McMurtry was a photographer, he might produce a book of images like Driftless: Photographs from Iowa, Frazier's black-and-white photos—which include scenes of agricultural life, winter landscapes, hunting and ‘a notorious party spot along the Iowa River’—give us both heartwarming and harrowing portraits of Iowa.” — Durham Herald-Sun

“Making pictures in rural Iowa for four years, Frazier knows firsthand the economic and cultural struggles currently playing out in the Midwest. The black-and-white images poignantly capture the tension of lives in transition. There are lots of guns, dead animals, and, similar to Frank’s imagery, parades and American flags permeate the pictures. The seemingly careless framing of Frazier’s photographs shares the same poetic grittiness of Frank’s in that it sets up a subconscious tension in the viewer.” — Mary Anne Redding, Photo-Eye

“The intimacy of the photographs suggests that Frazier has been a part of this world; he conveys its essential dignity without a trace of sentimentality.” — John Edwin Mason, Virginia Quarterly Review

“These black and white photographs of rural Iowa by Danny Wilcox Frazier have immediate and obvious appeal. . . . This is a wonderful and powerful collection, and Frazier is a photographer to look out for.” — Christian Perring, Metapsychology Online Reviews

"When I saw this work win the Community Awareness Award, I instantly fell in love. It's dark, it's edgy, it's real . . . and it's all done in his backyard. It's the kind of work I dream of doing. I'm glad to see this transcend a contest edit, and become a bigger body of work that translates beautifully onto the pages of a book." — Melissa Lyttle, APhotoADay.org

Driftless is Frazier’s document about rural Iowa. His home. . . . Years of working, walking, photographing, carefully making notes, names, places. . . . Inhabitants: Farmers, Migrant Workers, their families, Hunters, Churches, Trailers, Storms, Open Fields, Sunday Night. . . . Passionate photographs without sentimentality. His work reaches out: let me tell your story, it is important. Frazier’s work will survive—his book will be the foundation for more to come. . . .” — Robert Frank, prize judge

“I wanted to explore the lives of the people who stay, who are casualties of the growing economic divide that separates America’s rural and metropolitan classes. Having lived in Iowa all my life, these forgotten communities are part of my own history.” — Danny Wilcox Frazier


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Danny Wilcox Frazier is a freelance photographer. Raised in Le Claire, a small Iowa town that sits along the Mississippi River, he now lives in Iowa City. Frazier has a master’s degree from the University of Iowa, and he has received awards from the University of Missouri’s Pictures of the Year International, including its 2004 Community Awareness Award for selections of his work from Iowa. He has also received a Stanley Fellowship, as well as awards from the National Press Photographers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. His images have appeared in such publications as the New York Times, Time, Newsweek, Mother Jones, U.S. News & World Report, Life, and Forbes.

Robert Frank is one of America’s preeminent photographers. His complex and visionary photographs of postwar America, as well as his later films and videos, have greatly influenced the work of generations of artists. Frank’s book The Americans (1958) brought him international attention and marked a turning point in photography. The National Gallery of Art in Washington founded the Robert Frank Collection in 1990. He has received numerous awards, including an International Photography Award from the Hasselblad Foundation in Sweden and a Cornell Capa Award from the International Center of Photography in New York.

Table of Contents Back to Top
In Iowa / Seamus Heaney v

Foreword / Robert Frank x

Photographs 1

Acknowledgments 118
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