Faces and Stories
It has been a slow and sometimes frustrating process to figure out how to photograph this huge story of upheaval and contradictions on the North Dakota prairie. I have wanted my pictures to be more than reportage. I’ve wanted them to contain the poetry and drama of the layers of history, the expeditions of Lewis and Clark, the current rush on the land for oil, the glee of people who are suddenly rich, the anger of people whose lives have been turned over for oil rigs in their front yards. But my early pictures contained none of the charge of the layers of history or the complexity of now. The landscape work (which I will discuss in a later blog) was beginning to speak, but I regretfully gave up on the idea of portraits after not getting any that satisfied me during our first year of visits to North Dakota.
EF: What changed that opened up a new way to make portraits?
TE: For our May 2012 trip, I rented an 85mm lens, which is marketed as being a good portrait lens, but I rented it to give me a sort of medium telephoto for my aerial work. The first night in Williston we went to dinner at Applebee’s. It was one of those long days at the beginning of summer, and sunlight was coming through the window, shining on three oil workers at the bar, and I could not stop thinking about how I wished I could photograph them, even though I had abandoned the idea of doing portraits.
I woke up in the middle of the night with the thought that I could do their portraits. I had this 85mm lens and I could invite each one to step outside at Applebee’s. I could photograph them against the sky and have each head fill the whole frame. It was my first thought the next morning. My next thought was that I could photograph a lot of people, because almost everybody in Williston seemed to be connected to the oil boom. I rushed upstairs to tell you about it. Two housekeepers, a young Russian woman and an older woman, were cleaning the room next door, and yes, they did have a connection to the oil boom. The young woman had a three-month student/work visa and had been sent to the Bakken because there were jobs available. The other woman’s husband was working on an oil rig. And so I asked to take their pictures. We went outside to the parking lot right then and I got two portraits that I liked and it surprised me to pieces.
In the next few days I photographed almost everyone we met. We went to a café in Stanley where people were amazingly open. I don’t remember anyone saying no. It was astounding. And since then, I’ve bought the 85mm lens and made more portraits on our subsequent trips.
EF: And what do these portraits give us that those you had taken the first year didn’t?
TE: I knew that I could crop them into squares to frame each face and that each person had a deep story that would give us a way to talk about things that I couldn’t talk about in the landscape pictures. The new portraits were not about only that moment. There was something about the face filling the frame and revealing descriptive details that suggested something more. One is often taught in beginning creative writing classes: the more specific you are, the more universal it becomes. For example, there is the portrait and story of Edyth Pladson, who grew up very poor and now – at age 94 – has two oil wells on land left to her by her father many years ago. Suddenly she has some unexpected income as do her two middle-aged children. Their lives have been changed by the oil boom. This becomes not just her story, but a bigger story. It is not that the portraits themselves are unusual; it is that everyone I photograph has a story that connects to the oil boom and the portraits are a way to begin to tell the stories.