Guest Article: Mel Mann (RMSP SI/AI 2009 alum)Talks About His Experience as Artist in Residence at Homestead National Monument, Nebraska (Part 2)
Homestead National Monument was created by an act of Congress in 1936 “…as an appropriate monument to retain for posterity a proper memorial emblematical of the hardships and the pioneer life through which the early settlers passed in the settlement, cultivation and civilization of the Great West.” Although part of the National Park System, Homestead is not a grand landscape but rather a historical site. Comprising the 160 acre homestead proved up by Daniel Freeman (one of the first in the nation), the Monument works to teach visitors about the Homestead Act, the people who took advantage of the cry “free land” to start a new life, and some of the difficulties they faced and overcame.
Knowing there are no sweeping vistas for landscapes or towering mountains or ancient trees, I decided my story needed to be about something Homestead uniquely symbolizes. As part of the stewardship of the Monument the decision was made years ago to return the prairie to an original state, one similar to what Freeman saw as he explored the area looking for a new home. Now the second oldest restored prairie in the nation, the land became the subject of my story. The wide open prairie with its border of hedgerow trees and creekside forest became the vista I needed to show the scope of the park. The details of flora and fauna seen by looking closely in the park tells the story of how small elements work together to result in the larger environment. Against this, signs of man’s efforts to use the land, live on the land and finally respect the land through continued stewardship.
The staff at the Monument carry out activities supporting the mission of this place, both the natural and human aspects, and I was able to involve myself and my camera in several. Following the naturalist for the bird and deer count carried out by volunteers, photographing local students collecting water samples for quality testing, creating pictures of people in period costumes making candles, holding a spelling bee, and weaving cloth. Removing non-native species from the prairie and planting heirloom corn using true horsepower. There was even a ceremony re-opening a historic homestead cabin attended by the granddaughter of one of the settlers, connecting the reality portrayed in old black-and-white glass plate images with the modern world of National Parks.
For my first presentation I told the stories of three western photographers of the period – William Jackson, Arundel Hull and Solomon Butcher – who hauled their large-format cameras and glass plates across the Plains and western mountains to record what they saw, leaving us iconic images that resonate in our minds when we think of homesteading or western exploration. My second presentation showed images I’d made of the Monument along with pictures of other results from the Homestead Act – land-grant universities, agricultural cooperatives, railroad lines and grain elevators. All aspects of how we adapted to what the land was teaching us while we were changing the very look of the land. My final piece will somehow incorporate this story into an image.
Experiencing this National Monument changed my perspective on the Homestead Act from a simple paragraph in a history book to a realization of how this action of giving away land changed the natural and social landscape of America. Seeing it through my viewfinder helped me learn to look beyond the landscape and see how story develops based on how I compose an image, watch for the best light, put the right subject in the frame or even arrange photographs in a certain order.
I encourage my fellow RMSP artists to research this opportunity at parks they are interested in or have a desire to learn about. With more time to invest in a park you will gain new insights about its character and features, insights that will urge you to better photography. Additionally, you will meet people who can give you story ideas based on their in-depth knowledge of the park, a knowledge usually based on a love of the area and what it represents for us all. More ideas and greater insight – a bountiful combination for any photographer!