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Interview with Jane Carlson of Forgottonia Photography

Jane Carlson works in public radio and is a freelance writer and photographer. She was born and raised in western Illinois, and has lived there for the last decade. Her photography has been featured in “Midwest Gothic,” “Ninth Letter,” and other publications. For more information, visit www.forgottoniaphotography.com.

Please tell our readers a little about yourself. When did you become interested in photography? Why focus on Western Illinois specifically?

As a kid and for a lot of my adult life, my creative outlet was writing. About ten years ago, after I had been tinkering with a cheap digital camera for a while, my husband bought me my first DSLR. What I’d struggled over the years to say in fiction and essays–I guess you could call it a kind of sad love letter to the rural Midwest–became so much easier to express with the camera.

I focus on western Illinois because it’s where I am and what I know, and I have deep roots here. My great-great-great grandfather came to Knox County from western New York in the early 1850s and built a home that stood on the same patch of land for more than 160 years, and was next to a station on the Underground Railroad. Other ancestors came from Sweden and settled in the same area over the next 70 or so years. I may not have realized it at first, but I am chasing family ghosts when I’m driving around on gravel roads to take photographs of old barns and abandoned houses and fading little towns. It’s about what’s been lost over the decades, and what still remains–both in terms of the landscape and my heritage.

On a more practical level, I commute 30 miles to work every day along U.S. 67 from Monmouth to Macomb. That stretch of road may seem unremarkable, but it offers the most beautiful, sweeping prairie vistas. To break up my commute, I started wandering off the highway, finding places and landscapes to photograph. It became part of my daily routine, and that’s when I started to get really serious about photography. Where others might just see a rural wasteland, I look for old (and usually decrepit) treasures.

What is the story behind the name “Forgottonia”?

In the late 1960s, activists in western Illinois came up the name Forgottonia to describe the 16-county region between the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers that lagged behind the rest of the state in transportation and infrastructure due to inequities in state and federal funding. They wanted to secede from the state and they proclaimed podunk Fandon, Illinois, in McDonough County as the new capitol.

While this was all mostly a stunt, the name for the new state stuck around. To me, the word perfectly encapsulates the both the resilience of the region and a poetic hard luck that still resonates today. It also illustrates, to me, the contrast between what the region was in the mid-nineteenth century–when it was military tract land and full of seemingly limitless opportunity–and what it is now. For what progress has been made in building highways and rail service in the region, it still feels forgotten here in a lot of ways. And isolated.

What draws you to the “forgotten” aspect of landscape photography?

On the most basic level, I like being reminded of my own family’s agricultural roots, of how deeply my ancestors depended on the land and those big old barns to make their living. I’m drawn to abandoned farmhouses for the same reason. Perched on the rural landscape, they are truly phantoms on the prairie. Eerie, but beautiful and regal, even as they are falling down.

There are a lot of photographers out there who like to go inside abandoned homes. It’s fascinating stuff, these shots of living spaces simultaneously frozen in time and immersed in decay. But I have no interest in making those kind of images myself, because I’m going for a timelessness. I try to take photographs that belie any particular decade or era, that could have been taken yesterday or fifty years ago. Where others see ruin, I see persistence. Where there’s decay, I see time. Where there’s an old barn or a house barely standing, I see strength.

Of all your photos, which is your favorite and why? Were any photos particularly challenging or difficult to take?

I wouldn’t say that any photographs have been particularly challenging or difficult to take, although sometimes electrical wires or farm equipment or other signs of modernity ruin the timeless effect I’m going for, like if there’s a shiny green tractor parked in front of a beautifully decrepit tiled silo. The juxtaposition might be visually or intellectually interesting, but it doesn’t feel right to me artistically.

I don’t have a favorite photo, but I have a favorite subject–an old, Italianate abandoned house that rises up off the prairie out of nowhere west of Roseville, Illinois, in Warren County. The siding is gone, and plants weave themselves up the sides in spring, bloom in summer, and turn gold with the maple leaves in fall. It’s this living, breathing, breathtaking place, and I’m borderline obsessed with it, both visually–and narratively. As in, who left this place here to rot? What Midwestern farmer would leave an acre of land unplanted so an abandoned house could slowly deteriorate?

How do you determine your subjects? Have you ever run into any legal issues with locations you photograph?

For the most part I just get in the car and drive around in the country, keeping my eyes out for places that say Forgottonia to me. No legal issues, but once I tried to take a photograph of the water tower in my hometown of Rio, Illinois, and was accosted by an angry resident suspicious of my intentions. Because I’m doing landscape photography I’m generally shooting from the road and not trespassing on anyone’s property.

I do try to respect people’s privacy and dignity. There’s a whole category of “ruin porn” photography that is criticized as exploitative of poverty, and there are certainly outright and heart-wrenching displays of abject poverty throughout western Illinois. But I think what I’m doing is a little softer than that. Like I said earlier, I think of these images as love letters–if somewhat melancholy ones–to the rural Midwest, and to my family’s history here. My intent is not to say, “Look how rundown everything is here.” So perhaps my interpretation of Forgottonia is a little softer than the original one as well.

More recently, I’ve started a project to document all the unincorporated towns in western Illinois–those places that maybe once were thriving little towns before the railroad went somewhere else or the coal mines closed. It’s been fun to have a list of “destinations” to head to next, and to search for some kind of visual clue of what the place used to be and try to capture it. I also love the names of these places consigned to oblivion, names like Olena and Eleanor and Ophiem and Marcelline, in the same way I love the word Forgottonia.

Where can our readers go to learn more information, order prints, or view your latest work?

My website, www.forgottoniaphotography.com, is the place to go for ordering prints, viewing galleries, and reading a bit more about Forgottonia. I also have a Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/ForgottoniaPhotography/) and an Instagram (@forgottonia), where I post new work, including the ongoing series about unincorporated towns.

Sorry guys, this page is copyright MysteriousHeartland.com, 2016. You do not have permission to copy this for any reason. Please learn how to cite your work. Unless otherwise noted, all photos are courtesy of Jane Carlson.

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