While wandering the plains in 2005, a series of serendipitous encounters brought me to the the home of the late Bob Moreland. Bob, a painter, poet and rancher (whose granchildren are now seventh-generation residents of the Nebraska panhandle), took it upon himself to introduce a fellow artist to his wide circle of acquaintances. One of these folks was his nephew, Ken Moreland, who became a great friend and saw me though me the ups and downs over my ten years of work out there. Ken also introduced me to Doug Dean, a pilot based in Rushville, whose incomparable skills as a flyer, keen knowledge of the country, and perceptive eye were unquestionably essential to the full realization of the ideas and images in this project.
During my first few flights with Doug, we scouted remote sites that were nearly inaccessible, yet because of the plane’s large soft tires, we were able to land quite close to the subjects, and I could then get out and make large-format images at these spots. This was quite an improvement on earlier expeditions, which involved tracking down landowners, based solely on a tip or rumor, and then driving hundreds of miles to their ranch, with no guarantee of there being anything more to photograph than a shack filled with cow patties.
Yet it was also obvious that there were great images to be made from the air, especially if Doug flew at a low altitude. Over the course of that next year, we devised a means for placing a high-resolution camera on the strut of the plane, which could be remotely operated from the cockpit. This greatly expanded our picture-making options, as we could now travel to just about any location, quickly and in most weather conditions, and shoot either on the ground or from above. Most of all, flying close to the ground—at the height of a windmill and sometimes lower—allowed us to make pictures at a perspective in which the intimate seemed conjoined with the infinite.
Over the course of many years, I came to realize that what most attracted me to working along the 100th meridian was the land itself, the severe magnificence of its dirt and emptiness. Unlike the Native Americans, who mastered it with their acumen, bravery and speed, those who came to settle on the land survived mostly by hard-won perseverance.
This project is in part about the legacy of their ambition and failure on these arid high plains, as well as the evolving story of this region of the country. But the hardness of the land also lies in its vast and sublime emptiness. Perhaps the greatest challenge in making these photographs was how to depict that emptiness but not make vacant images. As best I could, I have tried to place the subjects in this book in relief, not only against the backdrop of human events, but also in relation to the physical and transcendent dimensions of Emptiness.
Editors’ note: Moore has published a wonderful book of this work. You can purchase it here.
If you enjoyed this article, we’d also recommend the following previous features: Deconstructing the Self in America’s Southwest, a project created as a photographer leaves an old life behind and enters unfamiliar territory; America, the Beautiful, three decades’ worth of photographs that capture the colorful, sometimes surreal, and often bizarre side of the unique country; and Storms, breathtaking images of the furious storms that rip through the American midwest.