Watson, Illinois, USA
The world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home. – Wendell Berry
The yearning to leave home strikes many of us in our youth – a lust for travel and adventure, the need to separate ourselves from our tribe as we reach towards independence, a hunch that real life and a bigger world lies somewhere over the horizon.
Of course, some places inspire different dreams than others. Growing up in a San Francisco neighborhood marks a soul differently than a childhood spent on a rural midwestern family farm.
Tytia Habing grew up on a farm just outside Watson, Illinois, which has a population of around 700 people. It is a tidy little community, a small grid of perpendicular streets along a bend in a state highway. There are no businesses to speak of, not a grocery store or gas station, and not a single traffic light, although it does have a volunteer fire station and a post office that is open most mornings. Watson’s notable landmarks are its water tower and the grain silos that stand at the bend in the road. I would also note that low January night-time temperatures for this part of east central Illinois average around 20 degrees fahrenheit.
It could be argued that Watson is a great place to be from.
When Habing was a Junior at a local state university she and a girlfriend spent their spring break in the Cayman Islands, a Caribbean tourist destination where year round the temperature rarely falls below the mid 70’s. As she tells the story, she came back to the midwest only long enough to finish her semester, then went straight back to the Caymans.
She stayed sixteen years.
And then she came back to Watson.
Part of what drew her back was practical concerns – Habing was determined to finish her undergraduate degree, and by then she was also married and had a young son. But when she talks about her decision to return, what she dwells on is the ineffable draw of the land and the people who occupy this small corner of the world. In other words, what becomes clear is that she wanted to come home.
I was going round the world searching for an interesting place, when I realized that the place that I was in was already interesting. – Emmet Gowin
And like so many who leave and then come back, she saws things differently on her return. She was able to recognize the subtle beauty of the midwest landscape, its understated palettes and nuanced undulations, with a clarity often invisible to those who have never left.
It wasn’t until Habing returned to Watson that she began to photograph with real intention, regularity, and intensity (her formal training in the medium is limited to a single photo class as a student). She says she felt driven by a new way of seeing what, in the past, had merely been an all too familiar place.
Living in the midst of the spectacular – I’m thinking of the startling range of cerulean blues in transparent Caribbean waters, or the incomprehensible scale of rugged Sierra mountain peaks – can have a curious cleansing effect on our ability to appreciate those landscapes whose visual vocabulary is tuned to a lower volume.
I see this process at work in Habing’s images, a new found clarity that has allowed her to express an affection and deep understanding for a place that she knows, a home she inhabits with a unique and personal authority.
She shares similarities with Wendell Berry, the American writer, environmental activist, and social critic who, like Habing, was raised on a family farm but then left (in his case to study at Stanford and eventually to teach in New York City). But Berry also ultimately returned to his roots, settling near where he grew up in Kentucky, continuing to write and teach but also live on a small working farm.
Their languages are different – his is verbal and literary, hers is visual – but the vision that each promotes, their conceptual vocabularies, and the values that nurture their work spring from the same source. I suspect that if Berry had turned to photography rather than writing, his work would have much in common with Habing’s.
Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. – Wendell Berry
Like Berry, Habing’s work is dedicated to – grounded in – her home landscape. But I don’t think of her as a landscape photographer, because her work’s embrace reaches far beyond the land itself. People are the beating heart of Habing’s work, what makes these images sing, and it quickly becomes apparent that the souls who inhabit this spot on the map anchor her tenderness towards place and home.
Her membership in this community – she is not an outsider, these are her people, the images make them real and visible, and give them a voice – endows the work with integrity and has a revelatory quality.
Her respect and affection is palpable. And although the images are aesthetically beautiful, Habing brings a lack of sentimentality and even an occasional dose of humor that makes her photographs resonate with a truthfulness that avoids cliché.
Embedded within her larger body of work is also a small subset of self-portraits that are often somber and piercing in their introspective intensity. They suggest that Habing’s journey, her process of coming full circle, has also engendered an internal dialogue centered around identity. This visual examination of self creates an added dimension to a body of work that is already emotionally rich and seductive.
Her portraits remind me of the wonderful work of Mike Disfarmer, who settled in Heber Springs, Arkansas, working as a small town portrait photographer in the 1930-40’s. He lived humbly during his lifetime, uninterested in the fame and attention that seems such an obsession these days, and his negatives were not discovered until many years following his death.
Disfarmer’s ‘penny portraits’ are direct and unassuming, but also generous, affectionate, and intimate. They provide a glimpse into the everday lives of hardworking farmers and small town clerks, wives and husbands, sons and daughters, soldiers on leave visiting their families, young couples, clusters of pals and classmates. Disfarmer’s images document an American rural culture that in many ways seems to have disappeared.
But Habing’s work serves as an antidote to this notion, reaffirming that along side the dissolution of communities into the virtual sphere of online stores and social media feeds, that there are still a few places where the everyday is lived on a local, personal, human scale.
There are still points on the map where people know their neighbors, stop by to drink coffee at the kitchen table, or pass time with family on the front porch; places in this world where people still get their bearings and glean their identities from their connection to the land, and these communities are still vibrant, alive and well.
The desire to go home is a desire to be whole, to know where you are, to be the point of intersection of all the lines drawn through all the stars, to be the constellation-maker and the center of the world, that center called love. To awaken from sleep, to rest from awakening, to tame the animal, to let the soul go wild, to shelter in darkness and blaze with light, to cease to speak and be perfectly understood. – Rebecca Solnit
images: © copyright 2018 Tytia Habing. No use without permission. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
words: © copyright 2018 Joseph Squier. No use without permission. Contact: email@example.com