Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A photo journey, pies and pelicans

Trains are rumbling past in the distance again, punctuating early-morning silence with whistles at the Law Enforcement Center crossing a block northeast, so all is right in that aspect of the world today. And rain is banging against the east window behind me with thunder for accompaniment. It's chilly (about 37 degrees), the furnace is running and it looks like a damp day ahead.

But the rain didn't descend until after midnight, so one of my main hopes for Monday --- that it would remain dry through the evening annual historical society meeting at Pin Oak Lodge --- was fulfilled. We had a packed house (it's gratifying at a meeting like this when you have to set up more chairs --- and struggle to figure out where to put them).

And Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer David Peterson's presentation was stunning --- I'm not sure when I've been part of a more attentive audience.

David had used 21st Century technology to turn his award-winning "Shattered Dreams" photo essay of the mid-1980s, dealing with Iowa's farm crisis of that decade, into a multi-media presentation accompanied by appropriate music and narration. There was plenty of time for questions and answers after as well as updates on some of the families he covered then.

This version of his essay had only been presented only twice previously, once at Drake University and again during January at Simpson College --- so we were very lucky to be able to see it and to be able to visit with the photographer.

Since many in the audience had been affected in some manner by that economic crisis, during which hundreds of Iowa farmers lost their land to foreclosure, families that had farmed for generations were forced to change course and our small towns were badly battered, the presentation may even have hit a little too close to home for some.

I wish I could show some of the photos here, but they are copyrighted material. You can, however, see the photos as well as other examples of Peterson's extraordinary work in the portfolio on his Web site, which is here. Scroll down to "Pulitzer Prize Farm Crisis Essay."

I was especially interested in Peterson's account of how the essay came to be. He had developed the idea while traveling widely in Iowa on assignment for The Des Moines Register and on his own, but was told by his editors when he approached them that they didn't feel much more needed to be done to cover the situtation.

Peterson persisted, however; applied for a Nikon Foundation grant; and with the $10,000 it provided ($10,000 was a lot of money in the 1980s, remember) was able to follow his vision while on sabbatical from The Register. Unsure initially who would publish it, the quality of Peterson's work convinced the Register to come through in the end (while not paying his salary, of course) and it agreed to do so. Part of the agreement was that Peterson would have complete editorial control. The product was published as "Shattered Dreams: The Iowa Farm Crisis" in December of 1986 and won the Pulitzer for feature photography in 1987.

Peterson no longer works for The Register, among the many exceptional journalists who have left or who have been dismissed as the newspaper Iowa once depended upon reduces itself to a shadow of its former self. That's a loss for The Register, but perhaps not for Peterson --- who worked there for 30 years.

He and his wife, he told us, have their Pleasant Hill home on the market and when it sells plan to become full-time RVers, roaming the country so that a terrific photographer can continue to follow his vision.

During the brief annual meeting that followed, we let long-time historical society board member and society president Jack Young off the hook, finally, at age 85, and allowed him to retire. Having moved mountains in his time, he'll be missed.

But we added to the board Darlene Arnold, immersed for many years in Lucas County-related genealogy and local history --- and I'm really excited about that.

A bonus for those of us at Pin Oak Monday evening was the fact pelicans had flown in during the day and were settling down for the night along the east shore, opposite the big windows in the main room of the lodge. So we were able to use the viewing scope in the lodge to snoop on these wonderful birds.

All in all, it was a great evening. And the pie served up by curator emeritus Betty Cross (foreground) and retired LCHS board member and officer Martha Milnes was darned good, too.

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