The photographic road trip is a rite of passage for many American photographers. From Robert Frank to Stephen Shore, Jacob Holdt, and more recently Timothy Briner, Victoria Sambunaris and Justine Kurland, it's a vital piece of America's evolving photographic history. But, like photographs of old road signs, abandoned motels and Instagram influencers peering from their tents into "glorious nature," it's often riddled with visual and cultural tropes.
Photographer Ian Bates makes this his own with a quiet, thoughtful series that captures a constellation of America by way of the Meadowlark – also the title of the series – a small grassland bird that's constantly fleeing its home when conflict approaches. Upon learning it was the official state bird of North Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, Oregon, and Wyoming, Bates – who grew up in New Jersey and now lives in Seattle, Washington – has traveled to the six states, photographing as the wind and his Subaru take him.
In one image, a man stands on the side of the road dressed like a disheveled stockbroker, shirt half untucked, gripping his shoulder bag with 50% confidence. Another image shows a brutal closeup of a purplish bruise on a man's side, and another – shot from a distance – shows a treehouse emblazoned with a small, Sharpie-drawn anarchist circle-A. Culled together, these images present a pointed, yet broken narrative – a series of questions that almost tell a story, but leave the viewer hanging on an ellipsis. I caught up with him to learn more about his journeys.
Jon Feinstein in conversation with Ian Bates
Jon Feinstein: "Quiet is one word to describe it" – you use this intro when you talk about your work. What makes this work particularly "quiet?"
Ian Bates: I grew up in the most densely populated state in the country, New Jersey, and it was hard to find quiet there. I believe part of what drew me to these places to make work was the silence. This stretches from the physical silence of the empty landscape and also to the people who keep to themselves for the most part. All of these places are traditionally areas where people move to get away from the hectic, loud cities and escape.
Feinstein: From the little that I know about birds, I'm guessing the title – Meadowlark – plays into that sense of quiet?
Bates: The Western Meadowlark is a skittish bird. In making the work I quickly realized how difficult it was to find the bird in the field. It felt untouchable but I knew it was out there. It was equally difficult for me to find people to photograph when out in the bird’s habitat. Nowadays, the bird and the people are leaving these rural areas because of what it has turned into. Large, corporate farms take over the habitat and rid the landscape of its human population and identity. The bird recognizes this change like its human counterpart and flees. Everywhere you look you see remnants of its past and the glaring reality of its future. The quiet of these places says much more than any sounds you’ll hear.
Feinstein: I keep apologizing to photographers for over-asking this in interviews, but given the previous question – if this work had a soundtrack, who would be on it?
I listened to a lot of somber and quiet music while driving around for this project. I’d say Sufjan Stevens, John Fahey, and Bill Callahan would likely be in there.
Feinstein: Backing up a bit, how did the project get started?
Bates: I graduated from undergrad in 2014 with a degree in photojournalism, but no longer wanted to work in that capacity. I was moving to Seattle and trying to figure out something to start working on to change the way I made work. North Dakota was a mysterious place to me and I saw it was the least visited state in the country. I then asked two friends to come and photograph around North Dakota with me for two weeks before continuing west to Seattle. Our intention was to make a little book of the work we made on that trip but that never came to fruition. I continued returning to North Dakota for about two years before some research led me to the other states and I decided to open it up a bit more.
Feinstein: Tell me about the people in your photographs? What's your relationship to them?
Bates: Everyone in these pictures are strangers I met while moving through these spaces. I am unsure exactly as to why I was drawn to them, but I think it has something to do with wanting to look closer and longer. I didn’t tend to spend a lot of time making the actual images and they often felt fleeting. I distanced myself from the people in the pictures as I was using these people to build up this place I had in my mind. The interactions were brief, but allowed me to open up my imagination of who they were. I wanted to make work that was malleable and left room for me to develop. I think not knowing about people allows there to be less projection of a defining image on them.
Feinstein: This series traverses 6 states in the US. How did you choose them/ what's their significance to you + this work?
Bates: It started in North Dakota, but I realized that there were 5 other states who shared the state bird of North Dakota (Nebraska, Kansas, Montana, Wyoming and Oregon). The Western Meadowlark symbolized a lot about all of these places with its habitat and the way things were moving for its future. The bird and people seemed to all be leaving these rural areas for similar reasons. It was interesting to use the bird to figure out where to photograph and I grabbed onto it. It really changed the course of the work and I began to search for the bird or where it might live, leading me to people and other pictures.
Feinstein: I can imagine that traveling and making photographs in this capacity, you may have confronted some uncomfortable, moments and circumstances.
Bates: I fell through the front steps of an old home and entered a few places where I probably should not have, but the people were really welcoming. The thing that really changed the outlook was how difficult it seemed to find people I wanted to photograph. I could drive for days without noticing someone I felt compelled to photograph. It was a part of the process and lead to a lot of the quieter pictures in the project. Interactions with people were often random and even lucky. When the only people you talk to for 1 or 2 weeks are strangers, those interactions are intensified and nerve-racking.
Feinstein: These are pretty disparate images, yet they still feel cohesive. What pulls it all together for you?
Bates: The pictures are quiet and carry some anxiety in them. I think there is a tension in the mystery of some of them that creates a curiosity to look at the next picture. In the first edit of the book dummy I shared with you, it was important to have a contradictory feeling between the images. As you said, some feel intimate and others distant. They are a direct reflection of how I felt working on this project. The edit is meant to reflect those emotions of connection and longing.
Feinstein: There's a pretty brutal yet beautiful image of a man's bruised side. What's the story behind this?
Bates: This came from a random interaction I had in Montana. I decided to stay put in this one town for a few days and do some walking. It was fruitless for the most part and on the last day before heading East I was in my motel room and couldn’t sleep. I walked down to the nearest bar and sat down next to this man for a beer. We started talking and he was moaning with every move he made. We eventually got to talking about what was wrong and he showed me this. Apparently, two days before I met him, his girlfriend pushed him in front of an oncoming car. I asked if I could meet him early the next morning and make some portraits of him and he agreed. I made some pictures of him and he asked if I wanted pictures of the bruise. It was intense to look at, but oddly beautiful in the daylight.
Feinstein: It's kind of an elegent map of pain. If you could pick a single image that serves as a metaphor for this entire series, which one would it be?
Bates: Though every image has its own unique circumstance, the strength really comes in how they come together, so it’s a tough question to answer. There is the picture of a dead Meadowlark on the side of the road. At first glance, it appears to be flying away. It was the only picture of a Meadowlark that I made that was successful. I never got to photograph a live one that wasn’t flying away. I think this picture marks the sentiment I had with the unsuccessful and metaphorical search I was on for this bird.
Feinstein: Meadowlark feels complete and comprehensive in its current state. Are you shopping this around to publishers?
ates: I went on what I thought to be my last trip for this work in late March. I made a physical book dummy to see how it all felt once in its intended state. I am still working on the edit and sequence while teaching myself how to bind better. I am definitely trying to find a publisher that is interested and that I think would be a good fit for the work. I have been lucky enough to have friends who are incredibly helpful and knowledgeable. People like Matt Eich, Trent Davis Bailey, Andrew Waits and Steven Turville have been really generous with their time and patient with my never-ending questions. A book has always been the goal and I am hopeful it will end up in that completed form one way or another.