Interstate Landscapes

I’m not sure when I became so enamored with the landscape that exists alongside of the interstate highways in Missouri and Illinois, but I do know that I feel intimately familiar with it and connected to it. I appreciate and respond to the wide-open spaces that are divided by a razor-sharp line, the part of the country that is exactly one-half earth and one-half sky. Unlike the dramatic landscape out west, a moving car may very well be the best vantage point from which to appreciate this restrained terrain—the speed magnifies the monotony, makes mountains out of molehills.

In 1993 I began photographing construction sites along the highway, focusing on the actual land that was being altered and buried beneath the asphalt and concrete. At the same time, I started taking road-trips to Chicago, Illinois from St. Louis, Missouri. I photographed the landscape between these two cities with a point-and-shoot camera from behind the wheel of my car, never bothering to slow down or stop. During this time, I took thousands of 35-millimeter slides that record this stretch of highway—so many, that if all of the images were projected in rapid sequence, they could probably be considered a short film, instead of a series of still photographs.

What initially inspired me to make Interstate Landscapes was my fascination with the patches and strips of native grasses that seemed to suddenly appear along the interstate highways. I had watched these grasses grow and change with the seasons for years before I pulled over to the side of the road to step into those blurry scenes. Throughout this time, I also watched the areas beyond the patches of grass become more and more developed. In some places, the landscape that I knew as a child had been radically changed. This work describes the subtle topography of Illinois and Missouri, the nondescript places that I have looked at and been surrounded by my entire life. These are my attempts to capture the stillness—to record the quotidian, sometimes prosaic, other times lyrical and mesmerizing, mid-western landscape.

Dean Kessmann