Nathan Pearce

Midwest Dirt


When I was 18 years old I packed my bags and left rural Illinois. It had been my home my entire life, but I thought in leaving I would find the perfect place for myself elsewhere. In the city everything and everyone I knew was very different from what I knew back home and yet at the same time familiar. The wild and restless days of my youth were in full swing. But when I awoke those mornings I still expected to see my old midwestern life.

Where I was living wasn’t exactly the wrong place for me, and at its core my life wasn’t drastically different, but it wasn’t home.
I came back home to live almost a decade later. I still have no idea if this time I will stay for good, I don’t know if that will ever happen.
The wild restless days and nights haven’t ceased.

Some nights when I lay down in my bed and close my eyes I fantasize that I didn’t ever return. I dream that I could get right back up and go over to my corner bar in the city and have a drink looking out on the crowded street.

But I’m not there. I’m here. In the country.

Now it’s just after harvest time, my favorite time of year. The fields are almost cleared and I’m barefoot on my porch with a beer in my hands. I can see for miles.

This project is about a time in my mid twenties when I can feel the tension between home and away.




Nathan Pearce (born 1986) is a photographer based in Southern Illinois.
He also works in an auto body repair shop.


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Nathan Pearce


56 thoughts on “Nathan Pearce – Midwest Dirt”

  1. This is absolutely amazing.

    I try not to make comparisons, but Danny Lyon just springs to mind after the first few photos. This is so right on in many ways. First, the text set me up perfectly for the essay. The writing is as awesome as the photography. Nathan’s skill and talent is in huge evidence here.

    I can’t think of a better example of “write/photograph what you know”.

    I’m very very pleased to find this here this morning, it rates right up there with my favorite burn essays.

    congratulations Nathan.

    PS, I’m glad you have a real job besides being a photographer.

  2. beautiful and tender and steel’d picture taking, free of moralizing and judgment but instead filled with what home really means: which is the delerium of knowing that distance did still not matter, even if that distance be geographical or the spiraling of bodies galloping themselves against the corn and the sky and the drugs and the dark….

    a beautiful update to Larry clark’s TULSA…and even Danny Frazier Wilcox DRIFTLESS…i hope Nathan can take a look at both books if he isnt familiar with them….

    and serendipitously, just last night I watched Andrew Dominik’s extarordinarily beautiful, poetic and brilliant film “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”…somehow, that film’s world and heart (1880’s) bends down in embrace of Nathan’s contemporary midwest…

    watch it…

    i could swim in this story, and more pictures, like an amniotic dream…



  3. Nothing I can add to the two comments above, except to say I agree (right down to thinking about Danny Wilcox and Driftless as I scrolled through the essay) and would have liked to have seen more.

  4. Just like real life this essay and it’s images of the rural day to day make me feel uneasy. I enjoy the countryside for a little while, but anything extra than a little, kind of oppresses me and makes mu run at high speed back to the city or it’s outskirts.
    Nathan manages to capture that going nowhere and time ticks so slowly dreary long never ending days masterfully. No tricks and attempts in sugar coating his life and those of his friends. Just plain fucking life. That’s what’s so great because usually the mundane and the quotidian are the most obvious under appreciated and overlooked subjects if all.

  5. Thanks everyone, I am blown away by all of these positive comments.

    Bob Black:
    Yes, oddly enough both of those (Tulsa and Driftless) are sitting literally right beside each other on my bookshelf.

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  7. Last time I was in southern Illinois a guy told me about a young woman he knew who was murdered by her tweaker ex-boyfriend near Ridgeway. She had called the cops asking for protection numerous times, but they said they couldn’t devote the time they’d like to domestic quarrels because they had to spend all their time fighting drugs. Dude was incensed by that logic. I was reminded of that little conversation by trying to guess where these photos were taken. Looks like Ridgeway. But given the narrow focus of the photos, a lot of places in southern Illinois look like Ridgeway. Just about everywhere. So as is not unusual in my critiques, I would like to see the photographer take a few steps back on occasion and show more of the environment. For me, the out-of-focus house in the first picture is one of the more compelling images in the show.

    I like the work and am glad David published it. It’s got story and authorship and potential. I figure the title is ironic, that the photographer doesn’t really mean that these guys are dirt, but then I figure he’s only half joking. Unlike Bob, I recognize this work as intensely moralizing. But probably better not to be so upfront about it. I suspect the real title is “Are You the Cowboy,” which works much better, imo.

    The whole thing’s obviously a bit sparse. Seventeen images, only four of which are very good as stand-alones. Four isn’t so bad, actually, but I think the supporting images, the corn fields, jesus, people sipping drinks etc, should be much better. The photographer is clearly thinking about it the right way, trying to figure out what kind of images tell the tale of that place, giving a sense that the environment defines the people, or tries too anyway, but he still has a ways to go.

    As an aside, I’ve just never gotten why someone like Nathan, someone starting out in photography would want to know anything about Larry Clark or Danny Wilcox Frazier. It’s a delicate balance. On one hand, it’s good, necessary for most, to have some kind of grounding in the history of the art. On the other though, I think it’s best for people to figure out who they are before looking too hard at anyone they might like to be. If someone like Nathan is going to take a hard look at a work like Driftless, it should be in an educational way so as to figure out what to avoid. It’s fine to see how other photographers approached similar work, but if you’re not bringing anything new to the table, best find a different project. I think anyone who puts enough effort into figuring out who they really are will eventually find that they are, in fact, not like anybody else. But if you put your energy into being like somebody else, the more you succeed, the more you will fail. In the big picture, that is. Short run, if you’re not really about the art, it’s not a bad strategy.

    Anyway, to repeat myself, I like this work and am glad David published it. I know southern Illinois pretty well and this showed me a few things I didn’t know. Still, there’s a lot more to it. Looking forward to seeing more of what this photographer sees in the place.

  8. mw: having a young photographer (or old photographer for that matter) NOT look at other work, other photographers (particularly those who mine similar veins) is akin to telling a writer DO NOT READ!…come on Michael, you know why I would suggest Nathan look and know that work…

    it is for educational reasons, for expansive reasons….i would never suggest to a photographer, young, look at something to ‘change’ your eye, your approach or, god forbid, to emulate or copy…but for very different reasons….it is NOT ABOUT being someone else…it is about learning and expanding…

    now, does a photographer have to KNOW others work…?…hell know…i knew about nothing when I picked up a camera (i knew more about painting and film and writing) but as i developed, i swallowed and looked at everything i could see and find to learn and to see what others do…until i felt confident enough in my own voice…

    to all writers, i tell them 2 thinks: write as much as you can and read as much as you can

    to all photographers, i tell them 2 things: shoot what you can and look and learn….

    its only in that context that i suggest to Nathan…

    you know that too amigo…so why the groutchy tiger stance ;))

    btw, i like your title for this work, indeed :)

  9. I can understand MW’s stance against looking at other photographers work, it feels really appealing to somehow be in a void protected from the influence of other photographers. However Bob is correct because you have to look at others work to it soak up, to see and even sometimes learn to feel what photography is all about. It’s probably like mastering a trade, you need guidance or there’s a good chance you’ll come unstuck and lost. DAH advised me sometime ago to take a look at Anders Petersen’s and Pinkhassov’s work, the advice was like a godsend it just really helped me understand what photography as art was really capable of attaining and where my subconscious was trying to go. At least in my case there is no way I would of progressed as much as I believe I’ve managed in the last 2 years without the insight and revelation of those photographers and many more I’ve discovered on Burn. What’s important is to digest everything you encounter photography wise, let it seep into you, absorb and assimilate it all and if you shoot just as many pictures as you study and look at there’s a very good chance you’ll sing your own song.

  10. Some good photography here Nathan, congratulations. The comments are really constructive and all views are essentially correct: read photo books voraciously to see the myriad ways of seeing and from the many photographic notes available sing your own song.
    As Bob says, looking at other photographers work is akin to a writer reading another writer’s work. We should know our photographic history; not so we can copy it: rather to educate ourselves in what is possible. Then we should go and pursue the impossible.

    I too would love to see more and I hope you keep a journal, Nathan, as your writing style complements your photography so well.


  11. We cam probably all agree that it’s essential to know something of photo history but that it’s also important for an individual photographer to find his or her own vision. I just see way too many photographers who are trying to be someone else and a few others who get paralyzed looking at the works of the greats. Whatever works, and that won’t be the same for me as it is for thee. But were I Nathan, I’d be a bit concerned if everyone is looking at my work and seeing someone else. And if those books on the shelf really are that big of an influence, it might not be a bad idea to haul them down to the thrift shop. Of course then it would be okay to tell me where the thrift shop is and when it opens.

    As to writers and reading, I’m currently reading Norman Mailer’s autobiography and he mentions how he did a lot of writing while reading Faulkner and had to throw it all away. I’ve had that experience myself reading authors with very strong, distinctive styles. Faulkner’s bad, as are Joyce, Hemingway, and Burroughs to name a few of the biggies. My personal nemesis is Saramago. So no, I wouldn’t suggest to any writer that he or she not read, but I wouldn’t be alone in suggesting they may not want to read while writing, certainly not some authors. I suspect the same is true in photography.

  12. MW, I know what you mean, we all see photographic fashions (tilted horizons, burned edges etc.) that quickly tire. I think it’s important to learn photographic history and yes, we will all be influenced and will probably emulate what we really admire but, eventually, a mature style will emerge that will be our own. I not disagreeing with you.


  13. I have musician friends that can’t listen to a song for weeks before writing.
    I know a visual artist who went to the extreme of turning all of the books on his shelf so only the white paper would show and he would see no outside stimulation while creating.

    As for me, I photograph every day and with very few exeptions I look at a lot of photographs everyday.
    I think that my looking at them has more to do with me loving photographs than it does with my searching for inspiration.

    I looked at those books while making these photographs and I also looked at the dozens of other books on my shelf. While looked at the books, I dont feel I made them my instruction manual for my shooting.I wont be completely naieve in thinking that what I take in has no influence on me though. The two mentioned are great photographers that I admire but I opened the books next to them (Donna Feratto: Love and Lust, Donald Weber: Intterrogations, Chien-Chi Chang: Double Happiness, Annie Leibovitz: Olympic Portaits and Sarah Stolfa: The Regulars… etc.) just as often and I doubt I will be compared to those works. So I will take the comparisons to these photographers as compliments as I hope they were intended.

    My love for good photobooks and the work of those photographers who came before before me came from being a student of DAH. I must also say that he really encouraged me to keep shooting my everyday life. I will however always condsider the skill of shooting a picture while holding both my camera and a full beer the most valuable thing I learned from shooting around him.

  14. Great work. I personally know Nathan worked for a long, long time shaping this story. Looking forward to what’s next!

  15. Excellent series, Nathan… checked your website, too… looking forward to seeing updates there… toss some recent work up on your blog, whaddaya say?


  16. MW

    yours is a very well written and well thought out critique imo…..and i do present this here as a work in progress and Nathan knows it…the only part of your critique where i think you might have skidded off a bit and hit the guardrail was when you suggested somehow that Nathan having a good look at Larry Clark or DWFrazier was somehow not a good idea….mimicry is always to be avoided of course but i do not think that exposure to the work of others is ever a “deal breaker” when it comes to finding ones own voice..most often quite the contrary….

    hey Nathan is the real thing…he works in a auto body shop….he did not come flying in from new york to do some cool essay on rednecks in the midwest…he IS a redneck from the midwest…so if base authenticity matters, then i think Nathan can roll on with the best of them if he really puts the pedal to the metal…he might even catch a little rubber going into third gear if he really goes all out….

    i am sure you would agree Michael, let’s see what happens next…sometimes that last 10%, that extra tiny tweak can take an essay from pretty damned good to very special….what Nathan has here should imo allow him to relax enough to totally catch fire….

    for me that out of focus house and arm out the window in that lead picture is an essay in one picture… and all the environment i need….that lead picture for me anyway represents what almost every young rural American boy sees feels and breathes at some point in life…i see that picture and i feel a novel or a movie coming…maybe that’s just me…but when any photographer strikes a chord on any subject, i know for sure i want to keep paying attention….besides my old pick up truck just could need some repair work someday, and Nathan might just be my man….

    cheers, david

  17. David, Nathan, et. al., yes, perhaps I did skid off the road a ways. Meant to start with the specific comments about the essay and transition to general questions about influence, not to personalize it in that way. As I alluded to above, I’m from the “whatever works” school and realize that there are as many paths to photo excellence as there are people who get there. On the other hand, there are significantly fewer pitfalls than there are people who fall into them, so perhaps when I consider the work of others and presume to offer advice, I tend to concentrate more on identifying and avoiding pitfalls than on finding the right path.

    Regarding my oft-voiced desire to see more of the environment, I don’t think that’s any kind of absolute requirement. Of course there are many examples of closely told stories that work and perhaps this is one of them. But it’s more than just the notion of establishing environmental shots. There’s also the question of whether or not its a good thing to vary distance between the photographer and the subject. I’d say that it is. In this specific essay, all the shots are from pretty much the same distance and perspective. Is that a good thing? I don’t know. Is that a conscious choice by the photographer? Is the framing in tight spaces a comment on the culture? Or is it more the falling into a pattern? The same question, of course, applies in reverse to those who make a point of varying distance and perspective. Is it habit or an integral part of the story?

    Anyway, no offense intended. Southern Illinois is a fascinating place of great natural beauty with an insane subculture of human violence. Gotta be one of the best places on earth for anyone looking for a bar fight. Not so much for those who don’t know how to avoid one. I’m happy to see someone doing high level work there.

    Might mention, however, that the university at Carbondale is a great university with a highly regarded photojournalism school. J Bruce Baumann taught there for many years. Somehow I suspect that Nathan is more a person who grew up around rednecks than a redneck himself. Kinda like some other people we know, eh.

  18. I think this essay is all about states of mind and perception towards a place and I personally agree with MW’s view on Nathan as being someone who grew up around rednecks without being one. Anyhow the classic quote by David; “don’t show what it looks like. Shoot what it feels like” I saw on Nathan’s blog has been successfully accomplished in this essay.

  19. Very well done Nathan. Compelling and intriguing. The first image sets the story from the get go. I’m from a country town with a population of 900, and my graduating class was 63 with six of the senior girls pregnant. I know rual life quite intimately, and now I reside in a town in California tha has a population in excess of 170,000.

    Every photographer is right, just as each is wrong in their opinions, and that is my opinion. Photographers will find their own groove regardless of who they see, read, or appreciate. Photography is art, and art is interpretive. My interpretation is that you spoke from the soul instead of the mind, with more emotion, which is hard for many to do, than forced cognitive effort. Keep them coming Nathan.

  20. It’s a pity that this essay got lost in the throws of a badly Photoshopped silly cat photo competition.

    Nathan has shown what a fine journeyman photographer he is with that profound sense of the narrative.

  21. I don’t think it got lost at all. The human mind is quite capable of getting a chuckle out of a picture of a cat with a photoshopped hat one moment and then in the next delving into a piece of significant work.

  22. Imants – Maybe you are right. One would think so fine and thoughtful piece of work would attract more comments and it could be that the cat in the photoshopped hat stole them, although I am not certain. In general, with an occasional exception, it seems some excellent essays do not attract as many comments as they used to. Also, in the past there was generally a dialogue thread where one could feel comfortable to drop in any kind of comment on anything, but such threads no longer seem to develop. Even with all the comments it go, the cat in the hat did not turn into such a thread.

  23. This, this is the shit. And I mean that in the most complimentary way.

    I would buy this book when it is “finished.” I really hope it is someday. In the meantime, here’s raising an animal beer to you Nathan. Cheers.

  24. Frostfrog…

    Let’s start a dialogue thread! I miss the good old Burn although I’m sure it’s just taking a nap. So lets wake it up.

  25. Frostfrog… I think the best essays usually go slightly unnoticed. They are subtle like the power and intelligence of oriental philosophy.

  26. Paul – I love both thoughts. I’m at a little bit of a loss as to how to do the first, especially since my one New Year’s resolution is to cut my time online by about 80 percent so as not to let myself get so distracted from the work before me and this means I will not have as much time to leave comments.

    Of course, it is now five days into the new year and I have truly kept this resolution all of one day – but I’m not giving up on it.

    Nathan – I know it will. There are so many things out there shouting out for our attention every day that I and others may sometimes miss what quietly comes next – but when you finish this book, we will be there.

  27. I’m all about rural America. It’s where I live and work. And I would agree this essay is an impression of rural America more than a picture of it, perhaps defined by the photograher’s biases. There is no “rural America,” by the way. It all depends in which direction you point your camera. I can take you from a fancy gallery opening to a roundup on a Longhorn ranch by driving 10 miles.

    The photos are a little claustrophobic to me, but that’s how I sense the photographer feels about his version of small town life.

  28. Jim, for once you said something with which I agree, but for different reasons. When we speak of Rural up here, it means something entirely different than it means anywhere down in the Lower 48. When I am in Lower 48 Rural America, I do feel claustrophic. Everything seems cramped, penned in, even when I am in what folks call open space, even in the west, the deserts, the Rocky Mountains. I can and do enjoy it for awhile, but then it gets to me and I just have to head north again.

  29. Jim…

    I got the same claustrophobic feeling, I usually share this feeling with my wife when we spend a little too much time in rural areas. What I love about this essay is Nathan isn’t trying to preach anything or showing off some eyeball kicks, the work is subtle and elegant. It’s all about Nathan’s impressions and reactions.

  30. Paul, if you miss the good old days so much, why don’t you comment on the photo essays rather than start new dialogs. You have certainly proven yourself capable of making insightful and challenging comments about the work that is presented here. That’s been my whinge lately: too little discussion of actual photography and what better jumping off point than the published essays? Here you have two essays published back to back. Interesting, audacious, fascinatingly flawed essays that burn kremlinologists can’t help noting were definitely chosen by David and you comment not at all about one and not at all well about the other. I mean, to say this essay isn’t preachy? I’d say this approaches Jukka levels of moral righteousness. And Virgil’s essay isn’t far behind, though from an entirely different perspective. Of course anyone should discuss whatever they like, but why not do that and make substantive comments about the essays. Sure, there will be a few photographers that prefer nothing but praise, but I suspect many more would prefer deep intellectual consideration of their work, even if it’s not altogether positive.

  31. So to put it in the “shorter” format, for you Paul, and just about everybody else: Why don’t you say what you really think?

  32. “Why don’t you say what you really think?”

    Well….I like this essay and congrats Nathan but if I have nothing to say I just don’t comment.
    It does not mean I don’t like the work. It just means I having nothing to say.
    No mystery there, just plain and simple….the truth…

  33. writing one liners or worst feeling forced to write “something” should not be part of the equation.
    If it comes….write…if it doesn’t….dont.

  34. I’m afraid that came off much harsher than I meant. Of course Paul makes substantive comments and has done so in this thread.

  35. What I really think: This essay is the shit, at least for me. No need to overintellectualize it. It’s real. It’s life. It’s America and American (sorry, USA and USAan). It’s well on its way to being fucking awesome. I will buy the book. If Nathan does a Kickstarter project to finish or publish, I’ll give him 50 bucks and a box of birdshot. No bullshit.

    Yep Michael, pretty harsh and out of context. Then again, we all go off the rails here at one time or another.

  36. Mw…

    LOL! You know very well that whenever I don’t comment on an essay it’s usually because I don’t get it’s meaning or significance and feel unsure. My view on comments is highly personal. I have nothing against constructive criticism quite the contrary, however you must take into account that all my knowledge on photography which has nothing to do with either landscape or fashion photography is thanks and due to DAH. Now if I had taken a critical stance towards many of the first essays I discovered on Burn, the one’s I simply didn’t ‘get’ or enjoy and commented in a critical way, I can assure you I would never have become the photographer I think I’ve become. Instead I kept quiet as I usually do, trying my very best to learn and see what the photographer was attempting communicate – yes probably very boring but I’m not round here trying to entertain, only learn. It so easy to comment in a critical way and just turn to another page and keep on stuck in the usual rut. Some essays take time to understand others are instantaneous and you can feel them straight away. Now of course there are many occasions I still come across an essay I can’t relate to and I feel that sudden urge to say so out loud right here, I stop and remind myself that DAH knows a damn sight more on photography and everything relating to it. So I shut my trap up, (especially considering the highly significant fact that I personally haven’t managed yet to complete an essay and be published on Burn), and try my best to get past my initial negativity.
    I think criticism is great, I personally feed off , it helps me tremendously but I’m a highly driven person, but others don’t have to be this way, so for many it’s a delicate subject. We all know that creating something with passion is stuff of very few and how hard it is to create anything above mediocre.

  37. I don’t really know what to say, could say but I hate namedropping. Life goes as it goes. Damn good work.

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  39. There is a little over a day left to help fund Midwest Dirt.

    Just a few hundred dollars away from a good working budget.

    I truly appreciate the support I have received from the Burn crowd since this essay was posted.

    I hope anyone who hasn’t given the page a look will whack it out and consider buying a book.

  40. I haven’t been this enthusiastic about someone’s project in awhile. I think it may because of its authenticity, its look from the inside out at the heart of the U.S. The reason may not matter. The best just hits you. I’m honored to have the opportunity to contribute, I hope others see what I do in this and help support Nathan’s book as I have done. I know its going to be a good one and suspect it will serve as a wonderful, perhaps even important, historic touchstone in where we are, or rather, where we were. To me, this is the best kind of work. Nathan, I still owe you a box of birdshot. All the best.

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