Andrew Moore delivers striking vistas of the near West and portraits of its stoic inhabitants in Dirt Meridian, one of our Best Fall Photobooks of 2015. In it, Moore surveys the regions along the longitudinal divide between the verdant East and the arid West, known as the 100th Meridian. The region was first documented by the War Department, back before the United States Geological Survey was created to map and report on the outlying regions of the young country.
Back then, Timothy O’Sullivan and other photographers well known to history, shot some of the first images ever made of what was then called the Great American Desert. George Wheeler, who headed one of the first official forays into the territory in the 19th century reported that “the probable future agricultural population of the areas surveyed…will be governed as much, if not more, by the permanent supply of water than by the acreage available.”
Then as now, the land surrounding the western edge of the 100th meridian is expansive, dry and largely empty. Agriculture, cattle herding, mining and oil industries are intertwined with the history of the West, though the fortunes from these enterprises are hard-won at best. The people of the 100th meridian trace their histories through their relationship with the land. Like the region itself, they are an austere and rugged bunch.
Andrew Moore’s intimate portraits bring us into the homes of families and wizened ranchers whose descendants settled the high plains generations ago. One, “Uncle Teed” as he is referred to in the book, spent all but two of his more than 90 years within the boundaries of his family property in Nebraska. Also pictured are the Budds, a family of five who trace their ranching roots in Nebraska back several generations. Of their three daughters, their eldest Jordan, photographed by Moore in hunter’s camouflage, was trusted to sell the family’s herd of bulls at auction at the tender age of 13. A 2013 The New York Times Magazine article detailing the lives of Moore’s subjects accompanies the photographs in the book.
One of the joys of Dirt Meridian is how the book pairs these portraits with Moore’s dramatic images of the Western landscape. To achieve the bird's-eye perspective that makes these photos so captivating, he worked with a Cesna pilot he befriended to fly him around. Moore mounted a PhaseOne high-resolution digital medium format camera underneath the plane’s wing with a robotic gimbal. Tethering the camera to a laptop inside the Cesna, Moore was able to compose and take photos from his computer as the pilot flew them low over the landscape. His images record seemingly endless fences, rolling low hills, derelict homesteads, solitary windmills and newly-built tract houses for oil workers.
Moore’s landscapes tell a story that is both timeless and relevant. The economic impact of energy exploration in the area has never been stable. Recent population booms in the oil shale fields of North Dakota recall Colorado’s gold rush, the legacy of which made headlines some weeks ago when waste water from an abandoned mine burst into a local river, polluting it with lead and cadmium. Exploration and extraction of petroleum resources of the type the Dakotas have seen recently can lead to rising land prices. Increasing property values put an even greater burden on old ranching families who see fewer and fewer returns from their efforts. Moore’s signature attention to dereliction is used in great effect in this book to underline the precarious livelihoods of those who have eked out a life in the hardscrabble expanse along the 100th meridian.
Andrew Moore speaks about Dirt Meridian on Tuesday, October 6th at the Penumbra Foundation in New York City.