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'Degeneration of the family farm' in photos

Rural roadsides are littered with neglected homesteads, long-ago abandoned. I see them all the time driving across Nebraska. Fallen farmhouses. Blighted barns. Overgrown fencerows. They even have a fanclub on Facebook.

For Randy Waln, a graphic design professor at Peru State University in Peru, Neb., there’s something about a rusted-out truck or weed-covered roadway that stokes the imagination.

“You see these farmsteads driving down any highway in (Nebraska) and surrounding states,” said Randy Waln. “You see these places and you wonder about the lives that were lived there.”

For an exhibit at the Great Plains Art Museum in Lincoln, Neb., Waln wanted to document what he terms the “degeneration of the family farm.”

“This is a rapidly passing way of life,” Waln said.

Waln mounted black and white historical photos of a family farm next to color photos of the same farmstead taken in recent years. Although the photos could have come from almost anywhere, they happen to be from his own family’s farm in northern Wyoming, a meager 180 acres of irrigated land.

In an old photo, family members pose on the front porch. In the new picture, the porch is falling in. But in contrast to the black and white, Waln’s recent photos were taken using high dynamic range digital photography. In fact, they hardly look like photos at all. The colors are extreme and vibrant, giving the images a dreamlike quality.

Waln said he wanted them to look like memories.

Sure, the grain bins are beat up and the old garage may be caving in, but Waln said that’s not how someone who has a connection to that place sees it. Their vision is colored by nostalgia.

“They see it through the lens of all those memories,” Waln said. “The people and the place together made it whole, made it a family farm.”

Now the people are gone, but these farm ruins stand as historical markers on a rapidly changing rural landscape.

The exhibit is showing at the Great Plains Art Museum through December 15. 

Harvest Public Media's reporter at NET News, where he started as Morning Edition host in 2008. He joined Harvest Public Media in July 2012. Grant has visited coal plants, dairy farms, horse tracks and hospitals to cover a variety of stories. Before going to Nebraska, Grant studied mass communication as a grad student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and completed his undergrad at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa. He grew up on a farm in southwestern Iowa where he listened to public radio in the tractor, but has taken up city life in Lincoln, Neb.