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Barnstorming the Prairies. How Aerial Vision Shaped the Midwest

by Jason Weems
The University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2015
368 pp., illus. 116 b/w, 16 col. Trade, $122.50; paper, $34.95
ISBN: 9780816677504; ISBN: 9780816677511.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

A book on modernization through aerial photography in the Midwest in the 1930s? There may be a lot of reasons to immediately skip it. Isn't modernity a quintessentially urban phenomenon that has nothing to do with country life and certainly not with the country life in the Midwest as we imagine it? And what can be the relationship between aerial photography, something we spontaneously associate with warfare and, more generally, power and colonialism? Finally, isn't there a kind of inherent contradiction between the terms culture and Midwest? The best possible answer to this kind of biases and prejudices is to read the amazing, refreshing, and throughout thought-provoking study by Jason Weems, which is not only a major contribution to our knowledge of Midwestern culture but also a superb example of the broad and interdisciplinary examination of what seems to be at first sight a technical gadget: aerial photography.

The basic question that Jason Weems's book is addressing is this: Aerial pictures, that is vertically recorded panoramic representations of the (in)famously known grid-structure of Midwestern flat and treeless farmland has been used by U.S. agrarian authorities to impose an ambitious program of both collectivization and rationalizing of farming in the years of the Great Depression as an answer to the negative effects on soil and productivity of unscientific ways of production and has therefore been interpreted since many decades as a basic instrument in the (forced) conversion from small-scale individual farming to large-scale state-controlled agribusiness. Weems does of course not deny that this has been the case, but the story that he tells in Barnstorming the Prairies is much more complex and multilayered and helps correct a large number of stereotypes on either of the keywords of his study: aerial photography and Midwestern culture. Weems succeeds in doing so by following three paths: first, an historical overview of the "vertical" view in the context of a dramatically "horizontal" natural environment; second, a cultural studies inspired reinterpretation of the reception of aerial views as well as the actual experience of flying by local audiences; third, an interdisciplinary approach of the photographic material that he links to sources from other media (pre-photographic drawings, contemporary paintings and architectural and urban planning sketches and photographs), and the excellent close-reading of this material.

In this analysis, the crucial term is of course the "grid", an icon of modernity but also of something almost pre-modern, that is the democratic and equalitarian spirit of the Jeffersonian ideal of the republic as the collaborative effort of many small independent and land-owning farmers, who were allotted a geometrically equal part of the prairie during the westward expansion of the U.S. in the 19th Century. The Land Ordinance that organized the methodical division of the (supposedly empty) land in 1785 followed perfectly mathematic rules whose philosophical and political underpinnings should never be overlooked, Weems rightfully argues, when analyzing the often positive reactions of small local Midwestern farmers to the imposition of large-scale grid structures and the accompanying new structures of production during the 1930s. Moreover, one should not forget that aerial view was neither something new nor something impersonal or purely objectifying. Aerial views have a very long history, from the elevated and bird's eye views popular in the Manifest Destiny era to the first pictures taken from balloons in the 19th Century. In addition, these views did not only reflect the point of view of the hegemonic power of the times (the landlord or the general, for instance), their cultural and ideological meaning was much more diverse, if not open to often anti-hegemonic reinterpretations: a more or less disembodied bird's eye view for instance, capable of displaying the gridlike structure of land ownership, displayed the fundamental equality of all those working on their part of the land while challenging the individual and therefore hugely biased standpoint of the single observer standing on top of the landscape. Finally, the rapid democratization of flying, as suggested by title of Weems's and mechanization of American urban society in these years, demonstrates that it is not possible to separate aerial photographs from the experience of flying itself, which many people, even farmers who had never left their county (but who had been enthusiastic car drivers from the very start of the Ford T model), considered a very exciting and liberating experience. It is therefore incorrect, Weems concludes, to adopt a dualistic or dichotomizing approach of aerial photography in the Midwest, with, on the one hand, the intrusive force of Eastern bureaucrats, and, on the other hand, the powerless forces of resistance of the poor and illiterate farmers. Most Midwesterners were sympathetic to the new technologies of flying and aerial photograph, and there was often an idealizing strand in their reactions to modernization (almost all families had aerial pictures in their homes and they appropriated these images as a tool of community-building). This much more nuanced vision of modernization has also important political and ideological consequences since it radically questions the backwards looking and narrow-minded worldview of the Midwestern farmer, something we have wrongly been used to take for granted and that allows also for a very different interpretation of Midwestern culture in general.

Midwestern culture is studied by Weems in other fields than aerial photography as well. The book contains two really thought-provoking chapters on regionalist painting by Grant Wood and the urban "broadacre city" projects by the prominently Modernist Midwestern architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Wood, a nowadays rather forgotten and not so much appreciated painter, was a local as well as national premier artist in the 1930s (to whom Life magazine offered a centerfold), and Weems' analysis gives a very subtle close-reading of Wood's clever treatment of the grid and his very sophisticated and interestingly shifting representation of the tension between straight lines and curbs that Barnstorming the Prairies manages to decipher from a wide range of perspectives. Wright, still considered one of the most noticeable representatives of Modernist architecture, had developed around the mid-thirties very ambitious plans to bridge the gap between country and city. He failed however in raising any serious interest in these plans, which were discarded as conservative, if not blatantly reactionary given their straightforward rejection of the modern city (verticality, concentration, mechanization, speed, mass culture). Weems shows the profound continuity between these plans, the traditional Jeffersonian grid and the cultural and ethical values this typically Midwestern structure implied. He helps understand why modern city planners could only reject the "broadacre city" ideal (a kind of reinterpretation of garden city dreams in an equalitarian and strongly individualizing framework). At the same time, he also makes clear that these failed and largely despised plans for urban innovation will be reinvented in the postwar years of suburban white-collar development.

Last Updated 1 August 2016

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