Ian Bates’ poetic response to the American Midwest

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Made over the course of seven years on the road, Ian Bates’ Meadowlark meditates on the people and places of a region often misunderstood by outsiders

When Ian Bates started work on his new photobook, Meadowlark, in 2014, he was 24 and just out of photojournalism school. Brought up in New Jersey, the second-most densely populated US state, the young photographer travelled to one of the sparsest states, North Dakota, often sleeping in his car on a years-long road trip through the American midwest. “It was all-consuming,” he says.

Shot during the following seven years, the project combines flooded farmhouses with sun-dappled clearings, and smiling couples with upturned cars. Meadowlark is a meditation on the rugged geography and contradictions of a region that Bates says is often misunderstood by outsiders, despite being made famous by the films of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood over the last century.

The landscapes are stark and barren; buildings lean, peel and fall in on themselves; people have false teeth, scraggly beards and battered clothes. “People daydream about the west from the movies they’ve seen, but it’s not all flowers and sunshine,” Bates says. “It’s a really harsh part of the country in terms of weather and hard living. It’s all farming, which can be a really difficult way to live.”

In one image a battered car floats in Devil’s Lake, a vast natural freshwater reserve in North Dakota that has been expanding for the last 80 years. A town of the same name lies on its northern shore. Whole settlements have been swallowed up over the decades. “Landownership is hugely important [in the midwest],” says Bates. “It’s something that people pride themselves on. But nature, if left to its own devices, will take back whatever was built upon it.”

Conspicuous in their absence are shots of the western meadowlark itself. It is the state bird of all five areas where the project was shot – North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, Kansas, and Nebraska – but it proved difficult to capture. Bates would often hear its song, but never got close enough to photograph one. Instead, he used the creature “as a metaphorical guide… as a way to pursue other things”.

A bushfire rages in one image, consuming the branches of a tree at the roadside, thick plumes of smoke rising out of the photograph. The next page shows the same tree, blackened and charred. “Being able to see change that quickly in a place where I thought everything is slow moving changed the way I looked at things,” he says. “It made me pay more attention to time as a theme.”

That also extends to his own personal journey, he adds. Looking back, Bates can pinpoint life events to photographs in the book. “Enormous things happened while making this project. I met my wife, we got married, we moved down to San Francisco, we bought a house, we had a baby,” he says.

Amid the harshness, there is tenderness too. One shot is of a pair of hands with palms upturned, fingers reaching for something unknowable. The hands belong to the landlord of Bates’ brother, who lives in Montana, he says – a middle aged man who raises homing pigeons. One of the birds had just taken off from his finger, and Bates had missed the shot. 

But when he got home, he had a realisation. The image was about more than the disappearing pigeon – just like the elusive meadowlark in the empty plains.“It’s more about longing or searching for something,” Bates says. “I like to leave it open to someone making up their own story about it.”

Meadowlark by Ian Bates is out now (Deadbeat Club).