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Missouri Squarely Seen Ozark Prairie Border

I was fortunate enough to obtain advance copies of these two new books recently, and I’ve been dipping into them section by section and page by page ever since. They are both essentially photo books, although both contain judiciously selected text (essays, comments, reminiscences) as well.

Subtlety is something of a lost value in our current esthetic environment. The outré and shocking gather attention and acclaim, encouraging a spiral of provocation in which each new art work must be more shocking than the last. But these books are subtle, and they take time to appreciate.

I’ve gone back and forth as to which is my favorite, but I think I’ve finally settled on Ozark-Prairie Border (176 pp.). This book depicts the area between Kansas City and Springfield, where the Ozarks slope down to wide bottomland and prairie, and where the beauty of the landscape takes more than one look to see. One response many people might have to some of these photographs – a wire fence enclosing a grassy field, a dilapidated building in a small town square, a bulletin board in a country diner – is “I could have taken that picture!” But would you? Would you have seen the unexpected richness of color in that field? Or the rhythm of the rural architecture, the beauty in small things that is celebrated here? The images on these pages reward contemplation. They are visual meditations on the rural places of western Missouri, and I find myself looking at them again and again.

Missouri Squarely Seen (114 pp.) ranges more widely and narrowly at the same time. It covers the entire state – landscape, people, buildings – but all images were taken with a square-format camera and retain that shape. Like the form of a poem, the square format of the image both constrains and challenges the photographer, demanding and rewarding a fresh compositional approach. The photographs in this book are rarely conventionally beautiful; in fact, the traditionally “photogenic” subjects are often treated ironically. In the square format, the Kansas City skyline, ripe for panorama, occupies only the middle fifth of the frame, with a street in the lower two-fifths, a kid climbing a weedy embankment beyond the street, and a Fifties-postcard-blue sky stretching much too far above the buildings for a conventional composition. The result is a somewhat comic distancing and diminishment of the classic landscape view. In some cases, though, the square image does not distance us, but rather focuses our attention on some person or object placed at a strategic spot within the frame.

Payton has a remarkable eye for color, and both these books are filled with richly saturated images in which the colors collide, harmonize, joust, or disappear into unexpected darkness. Both books are rich, rewarding, and beautifully produced. If you love photography, or Missouri, or both, you should get yourself copies. They’re available from Lens & Pen Press.