Editor's Notebook: An Illinois photographer captures the beauty of the Midwest's landscape

Dec 1, 2001

Peggy Boyer Long
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

Ask central Illinois photographer Larry Kanfer what he can possibly find in this flat and seemingly empty landscape and, like any true Midwesterner, he’ll talk about the history of towns, the cycle of seasons and, of course, the significance of weather.

In awe-inspiring detail. The first thaw? That’s usually January 20 or so, when a bit of black earth shows through the snow and there’s a slight scent of spring in the air. Never mind that February will then seem as unending as the horizon. Spring is a certainty. So are summer and fall.

Kanfer, whose photographs appear on the cover and on pages 18 through 25, makes his living by paying attention to this kind of detail. And, though not a life-long Midwesterner, he has become a close observer of other folks whose livelihoods are grounded, over generations, in rural towns and farmsteads.

“The farmers have worked, year in, year out, every day on the same plot of land,” he says. “They know intimately what the soil type is, they know the seasons, they know the repetition. They can almost sense when a front is coming through. And how do they do that? My job is to try and figure out what signals they get to understand the land.”

He’s philosophically suited to the task. “Living in the middle of a city, there’s a whole element that you’re missing in life,” he says. 

“I personally need a sense of the sun moving throughout the seasons, from rising in the northeast to rising in the southeast. There’s the timeline, the progression that is really important.”

As it happens, Kanfer was born in the Midwest, in St. Louis, but he spent his early years in the Pacific Northwest, which has an obvious, what he calls “vertical,” beauty. After high school, he moved to Illinois, where he discovered a “chronological” beauty that must be experienced over time.

That insight, it turns out, is the theme of our sixth annual arts issue. From Chicago to the southern tip of the state, artists help us to see in new ways the landscape and the people of Illinois. Lucky for us, Kanfer agreed to let us use some of his photographs. 

Kanfer owns galleries in Champaign and in Minneapolis, Minn. He has put out three books of Midwestern landscape photography: Prairiescapes; On Second Glance; and, his most recent, On Firm Ground, which was issued this year. All three were published by the University of Illinois Press.

Some 1,500 of his photographic images also can be seen on his home page at http://www.kanfer.com. These images are searchable by key word. 

This is a substantial body of work for someone who said he would give photography a year to see how it went. That was in 1978, after Kanfer received his degree in architecture from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

Architecture, it turns out, provided good technical and conceptual training for the photographic arts. That’s because, Kanfer says, an architect has to be able to think through what he’s trying to communicate. When he photographs, he does the same. He tries to think about getting his point across. 

His vision of the Midwest? “Optimism. Growth over time. And the fact that we, as a group of Midwesterners and Illinoisans, have worked together to build this civilization. We’ve got these beautiful little towns that have sprung up, perfectly spaced across the countryside. 

“Where better to see it than here where it’s flat.” 

Illinois Issues, December 2001