Andrew Lichtenstein returns to Nebraska in drought, photographing an American Place.

September 27, 2012

An American Place

Photographer Andrew Lichtenstein

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September 19, 2012
Brooklyn, New York

Hay Springs, Nebraska is not a town easy to forget. I first traveled there in the winter of 2004 for the funeral of Sergeant Cory Mracek, a paratrooper killed in Iraq. Despite the bitter cold, every car on rural Route 20, which cuts across Sheridan County, pulled over onto the side of the road to salute the passing funeral procession. In the very small towns of Hay Springs, Rushville, and Gordon, residents bundled up in coats lined the street with American flags. I am a person who remembers things visually; so this summer, when I was searching for an American story, I immediately thought of those pick-up trucks on the side of the road. I had not made a picture then, but I knew it was a place to return to, a place that, in my mind, spoke of an older, more traditional America.

Residents of Hay Springs, Nebraska, line up to watch the funreal procession for Cory Mracek pass by,
February 4, 2004.

In the heat of August, I decided to photograph the drought that has paralyzed the farms and crops across a giant stretch of the American heartland. While the drought is very real, and its effects have been devastating for many who earn their living growing and harvesting the food that we all eat, I knew before I even left that I was thinking about more than the physics of the weather. Like with any news event, the drought becomes a prism through which to perceive something more meaningful to me, something harder to explain in a sound byte. I wanted to explore our own country, its conservative bedrock, and gain a better understanding of some of the deep divisions that separate that hinterland from the coasts. If the drought was what got me there, I hoped to stay for the chance to visit a culture very different from my own here in Brooklyn.

Sheridan County is in the remote northwest corner of Nebraska. Named after the Indian fighter General Phillip Sheridan, who systematically slaughtered the buffalo that roamed the high plains in order to starve his Sioux and Cheyenne enemies, many attitudes feel as if they have been fixed in time. Though just a dozen miles south of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Sheridan County is ninety-nine percent white, and local prejudice against the Native Americans on the reservation runs deep. The cattle that quickly replaced the buffalo are watched over by the descendents of the immigrant settlers who labored to tame the land, killing the wolf, bear, and lion. These men and women lived outside of any city’s gates. They fought and died to claim this land as their own, in spite of whatever obstacles faraway easterners from New York or Washington placed in their way.

During my stay in Hay Springs, my hosts were Jim Mracek and his wife Pat, the parents of Cory, whose death had brought me to Sheridan County eight years earlier. Generous to a fault, always willing to help a neighbor, or stranger, in need, the Mraceks are at the same time wary of the larger world that seems to have moved on.

Jim is a caretaker for a 5,000-acre cattle ranch. Like many people who live off of the land, Jim seems to have paid close attention to his surroundings. Dependent upon God’s creatures, it’s easy enough to conclude that the world is a harsh, unforgiving place. At the same time, there is a natural order, an accepted balance, and a rhythm to life that doesn’t have to be questioned or struggled over. On the ranch, there is no such thing as can’t. Hard work and patience and then more hard work solve almost any problem, of which there are many: another fence to mend, a stray calf to find, a pivot to check.

I failed at fully understanding the political beliefs of this deeply conservative part of the nation. The gap between basic political assumptions in rural western Nebraska and my own was just too large to build a bridge over. But self-reliance, hard work, an older, more intimate, connected America; these were all attributes where I could find great beauty, visual and otherwise.

Looking above, into the vast, blue Nebraska sky of the open prairie, I could see the jet streams of the airplanes flying from coast to coast. This is what I wanted to try and photograph, I realized. A place, an American Place, that the rest of the nation only sees from the plane window, those grids of intersecting dirt roads mapped across the seemingly endless expanse of land, viewed from 40,000 feet above.

UPDATE, Sept. 27: The Commerce Department’s report released today downgraded the growth rate of the GDP from 1.7% to 1.3%, citing the effects of the severe drought reducing crop yields and farm inventory.

PHOTOGRAPHS + TEXT by Andrew Lichtenstein /

Editor: Jamie Wellford, Photo

With support from Leica Camera

Comments on this story

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  • An American Photographer | Robert Anasi October 3, 2012 at 11:54 pm

    [...] new project project, An American Place, is the culmination of work he’s been doing for over a quarter of a century. Powerful ju-ju. [...]

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  • Beautiful photos and story. A recent country song (Fly Over States) hits some of the same notes, but from the other perspective.

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  • this is a wonderful project that parallels andrew’s previous or ongoing “american history” project. he has a wonderful way of capturing the quiet moment so of life. please show us more!

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  • This photographer has a very distinctive way of engaging the subject, a trademark of sorts,that captures a very real essence imbued with social and political relevance, without picking sides or being overt. Well done. Looking forward to the next project.

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  • simply gorgeous work. looking forward to seeing what you do next…

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  • Christina Fallara September 29, 2012 at 6:36 pm

    Incredibly moving and beautiful photo story – your pictures communicate in a very honest and empathetic way. Amazing.

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  • The picture of Jim sitting under the portrait of his son made me cry; the tablecloth, the lamp …
    You take pictures with your heart.

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  • “Keep a watchful eye for burrs.”

    What Andrew Lichtenstein’s photos have always done.

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  • Beautiful and essential work, I am sharing this with my graduate students at UC Santa Cruz. Thank you, Andrew.

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  • Beautiful and important work from one of my favorite, and one of the most genuinely conscious photographers i know. – bravo, Andrew.

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  • This is the kind of storytelling that can bring us together as a country and as people. Know thy neighbor.
    Beautifully done, knowing this man lost his son in defense of our country puts a filter of empathy over each image … the beauty of Nebraska speaks for itself.

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  • Spectacular images and insight. Sharing.

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  • Beautiful, Andrew!

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  • Powerful photographs that capture the seriousness and painful realities of the worst drought the Mid West has seen in 50 plus years. Highly recommended.

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  • Beautiful photos, but more than that I can see your words and feeling reflected in the images, they provide a real sense of being there and admiration but aso an honest distance.

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  • A heartfelt view of America’s heartland. Beautifully visualized alongside compelling text. Very powerful work. Thank you for sharing it here.

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  • Wonderfully poignant and haunting at the same time. A must see.

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