Assignment: Nebraska

Article and interview by Liz Lorang

Those of us who
had childhood dreams of working for
National Geographic Magazine might be surprised to learn that National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore’s
favorite assignment is the time he spent traveling and photographing Nebraska.
Where we might have dreamed of something more exotic, Sartore, a Nebraska
native who began working for the magazine in 1991, sees being close to home,
mingling among the state’s people, and sleeping in his own bed at the end of
the day—all while capturing compelling images—as the perfect assignment.Nebraska_under_a_big_red_sky

A number of
Sartore’s photographs from this perfect assignment first appeared in a
National Geographic feature on the state in November 1998, and he later collected more Nebraska
photos for the book
Nebraska: Under a Big Red Sky, published by Nebraska Book Company in 1999. Described by Robert Nelson of the Omaha World-Herald as “a photographic celebration of
everything good about life in this state” and “a lasting document on why
somebody would choose to live here,”
Under a Big Red Sky illustrates the quintessential Nebraska.

An often
idyllic look at the lives of Nebraska’s
people and their traditions as well as the state’s geography and wildlife,
Sartore’s collection showcases the state’s dynamism and diversity—of
landscapes, weather, people, and animals. Whether quietly understated or funny,
picturesque or sublime, each of the photographs elicits its own unique
response.

This fall, the University of Nebraska Press, with the generous
support of the Nebraska Department of Economic Development Travel and Tourism
Division, is re-releasing
Under a Big Red Sky through its Bison Books imprint. As a quality trade paperback, the Bison edition will make the book more affordable for a wider
audience of readers from throughout the state and for travelers visiting Nebraska.

 

In a recent
interview
, Sartore shared some thoughts on Nebraska and the book.

 

ie: Did you have to
leave Nebraska to appreciate the places, people, animals, events, and nature you capture in
the book?

 

js: In a way, it does take leaving the state to appreciate it.
Until you’ve been somewhere else and been made uncomfortable in a variety of
ways, you really can’t understand what you love about a place. This gets
reinforced every time I go on assignment now for
National Geographic and is extremely apparent when
visiting a developing nation, for example. Having to deal with things like
unsafe drinking water and insect-borne diseases makes you appreciate how good
we have it here.

 

ie: In the
introduction, you say your work on Nebraska
taught you a lot about the place you’ve lived all your life. What are some of
the things you learned?

 

js: I’d never really seen the state from top to bottom, east to
west. I’d driven its length a few times on my way to Colorado, but I had no idea the Nebraska
Sandhills were so wide open, so beautiful, and so full of wildlife. The people
all around our state are extremely friendly and will do anything to help when
you’re on assignment. Since I need time and access to make good pictures, that
makes this state a nearly perfect place to work.

 

ie: Your focus in the
book is largely on rural Nebraska.
Why was it important to you to capture these images?

 

js: For me it’s easier to work in rural areas for several
reasons. First, I find it easier to make good shots when I’ve got a clean,
wide-open background. Second, there are a lot of interesting, off-the-wall
things going on out there, beyond the cities. The Wayne Chicken Show is a
classic example. Lots of people dressing up like chickens, best beak contest,
you name it. Hard to imagine getting that kind of charm and enthusiasm in a big
city.

 

ie: In the book you
write, “I’m glad that it feels like 1958 here. That’s very comforting to me,
and I want it to stay that way.”
Do you ever have to defend this position to others?

 

js: No, not really. I think many others have the same view. The
modern world is pretty loud, hectic, and polluted. I think everyone wants to
believe there’s a place like Nebraska
out there, somewhere.

 

ie: It’s been seven
years since the original publication of
Under a Big Red Sky. Has your
perspective on the state or the book changed in any way since then?

 

js: My perspective hasn’t changed at all. I’m still the state’s
biggest cheerleader and a huge optimist. While I have shot a few more images
along the way since then, I don’t know that I’d change a thing in the book.

 

And his favorite
photo from the collection hasn’t changed over the years either: with his
photographer’s eye, Sartore remains partial to the shot of a demolition derby
in which “just the right light, movement, color, you name it” all come together
in a single frame. Depending on their own passions and experiences, readers of
the book will certainly find their own favorites too.

 

For
more information on Joel Sartore and his work, including a link to his online
gallery, visit his UNP Web site book page.