In the United States, the middle section is often referred to as the 'fly over' states. A nickname that people living on either side along the coast have given to all that happens in between the sandwich of New York and California. It is written off as corn country, where gun totting Americans care about few things. That line of thinking might lead one to argue as to why most artists live in places like LA and NYC; there is more to reflect on, more to portray, and more to... do.
This last election has led to the re-evaluation of what middle America represents and who those people actually are; not as a voting block, but as people that have the same struggles that any one person might have on the coasts. TJ Nelson is a photographer from middle America. He was raised in Utah and spent summers in Nebraska. If you take his photography and place it next to a photographer from San Francisco, you'd be hard pressed to distinguish between them. The subject matter could be in the backyard of Palo Alto or a suburb of Salt Lake City, with the people looking oddly similar to one another, engaging in similar activities.
Then there are the elements that you can't find in photography from the coast. Those intangibles from a different upbringing, a different way of imagining a story. TJ spent formative summers on his mother's family farm in Nebraska. A place where hard work was a forced lesson, because the luxury of procrastination couldn't exist. "Harvest is a race against nature. When the wheat is ready, getting it in storage is of the utmost importance. A day delay and hail may come and wipe out the crop. If a farming implement is broken, there is no shop to drop it off. My uncle would have to limp it back to the homestead and start welding." When work is abundant and entertainment limited it can be a lot easier to find a creative voice and imagination. For TJ it helped even more that he was given tremendous support from his parents. "Whether it was film for my camera, or markers and paints, or video tapes, if I had a creative whim, they made sure I had the means to make it. Between the two places I found a creative voice, and the drive to keep at it."
And that can be helpful when you have a world to grow up in; when it is hard to figure out how to express yourself as you begin to change as a person from a kid to a teen. Whereas today skateboarding and snowboarding are mainstays in culture, when TJ was growing up, they were just starting up: a respite for those kids that didn't quite fit in. So when it came to hangout sessions of snowboarding and skating, TJ's natural creative tendency took over. Paired with friends that he still has 20 years later, he found his passion for photography and film-making to document this world where he felt so at home and so welcome.
For TJ, the push through years of adolescence using the medium of creative expression was helpful preparation for his best friend's diagnoses with cancer. "My dad’s diagnosis and subsequent passing were cause for a lot introspection and isolation. Losing my father, best friend, and creative hero threw me into a place that I couldn’t really describe to people that hadn’t experienced that kind of loss. The best way I could communicate my grief was photographically". And the delicate process to shooting and developing film forced TJ to be in the moment, helping him find peaceful breaks here and there while working through his grief. Something that you can't really match talking through the pain of losing a loved one to cancer.
In many ways those moments TJ spent growing up on the farm are no different than moments found growing up in the city; there are difficult points where a person grows into someone better than before. That is especially the case as we all have to work through the eventual grief of losing someone we love in this journey of life. A shared life experience of growing up and losing people is something that we all share together. We all want the best for our loved ones and success for our friends regardless if you live on a farm in Nebraska or live in SOMA here in San Francisco. As we have continued to evolve as a nation, so has photography to reflect those changes. Helping to tell our increasingly complicated, but wonderfully similar story as Americans. "Now, people make photos without thinking and the argument could be made that the image has been devalued, but at its core photography is just remarking one’s perspective with varying degrees of intent. Fine art photography will continue to exist as long as there are people who value that perspective".
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