Nathan Pearce’s Midwest Dirt, now in its third iteration, is something of a classic of contemporary photography zines. The first iteration (that I’m aware of) appeared on Burn in 2012, and Akina Books designed the beautiful first print edition in 2014. Pearce’s own Same Coin Press put out a bootleg photocopied version the next year, and Josef Cheladek has it on his excellent site.
For it’s 5th anniversary, Pearce worked with Jake Reinhart to put together a new edit and Halfmoon Projects published a brand new edition, designed by Elana Schlenker. I was all set to get one, and then I saw the special editions: one with prints, one with zines, and one with prints and zines. Being the zine fiend that I am these days, I went for the zine edition, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Midwest Dirt is perhaps best characterized by the text on the cover:
I’m drawn to the stillness and also terrified by it. That’s what calls me to the Midwest.
I have some familiarity with the community Pearce presents here: good prairie stock, hard working, proud, but a bit listless, trying to fill the hours of the day however they can. There’s always so much time on the prairie. A friend of mine once described life in DFW as being covered, veiled, and distracting, that is, when you get away from all the billboards and shopping malls and hustle bustle, when you get out into the natural world, you can more easily see the wonders of God.
Now I’m not sure that’s what Pearce and his friends and neighbors are getting into. Mostly, they look to be living their lives, working, playing, going to church, raising kids, etc., and it’s a fairly honest existence. There’s none of the drunkenness or drug abuse that seemed to be rampant in many parts of Southern Illinois when I lived there. When I was there, methamphetamine use was rampant in the country and almost everyone I encountered was a drinker, at least, and most were into some other things. Friends and I classified towns as “more churches than bars” or “more bars than churches.” We preferred the latter, and it seems that Pearce’s Southern Illinois is about 50/50.
Balance is good.
After many years back in North Texas—some of which spent married to an amazingly wonderful and beautiful Bengali lady and living among a bunch of Indians, Pakistanis and Bengalis—I’m struck by just how white Midwest Dirt is. When I lived in Springfield, IL, there was a small, visible African American population, a tiny minority of Latinx folks, and some South Asians and Middle Eastern and African peoples at the University. But then, with 115,000 people, Springfield was BIG. The small country towns I visited were much more homogeneous, and I expect that hasn’t changed.
This isn’t meant as a critique, and it probably says more about me than Pearce, his subjects, or his zine. Small, country farm towns are what they are, and Midwest Dirt is an intimate, familiar portrait. Pearce’s affection for the people and place is palpable, and I wish I felt such about the place I live and the people I live among.
This new edition of the zine is simple, but rather elegant, with a peachy pink cover and cream colored pages. I’m not familiar with earlier edits, but at least one picture is missing from the new one: that shot of the pensive guy sitting on a porch with a cigarette in his mouth that leads off every online version is nowhere to be found. The printing quality is good, but some of the across-the-gutter prints lose their cohesiveness and don’t really make much sense hacked up like that, and I found a couple of errors in my copy. At first, I thought they were hard water spots on the negatives, but the four spots are all similar: one page has a black spot that’s visible on both sides; the next page has a white spot of the same shape, in the same place. It’s a printing error of some sort, I think. They don’t distract too much from the photographs, or from the overall story, which is strong and very well executed.
Overall, I’d give this new edition of Midwest Dirt a very solid 4.5 stars. I may have some, at best, mixed emotions about my time on the Prairie, but Pearce is much more positive, and Midwest Dirt is an excellent, tender portrait of a place he clearly appreciates.
As to the zines that came along: they’re all different, and all interesting in some way:
- Midwest Dirt from memory Vol. #1 is a little 8-sided, single-sheet thing, with short handwritten descriptions of photographs from Midwest Dirt. It’s a really interesting idea for a photo zine. My copy is numbered 11/15.
- Sick Tat2, unnumbered, is a single sheet, photocopied quarto, with four photographs of kinda random tattoos. There’s not much more to say about it than that, but I’m reminded of Wrestling Friggen Rules.
- Recycled Faces is a stapled sheaf of xeroxes, presenting a group of those portraits we all have, photographs taken at the indecisive moment, with subjects blinking or spittle flying out of their mouths. Why leave these to rot in archival storage sleeves or moldering on hard drives, when you can turn them into a zine? The title page says this zine is limited to 25 copies, and explains the project beautifully:
Most photographs are failures. I have thousands upon thousands of useless photos. It seems like a waste. In this book I set out to recycle some of my failed photographs. I searched my archives for blinking eyes, talking mouths, and otherwise unusable faces and gave them a new purpose.
- Crops is another set of stapled xeroxes, with pictures of crops, all made with an ActionSampler (or one of its predecessors, one of those 4 lens toy cameras… I’m sorta wanting one now: kinda looks like fun). It looks so much like central and southern Illinois to me: the repetition suits the subject, for sure.
- Moving Mountains is an interesting book dummy thing. The pages are stapled into a file folder and made up of different sizes and paper stocks, almost like a “home file” with receipts and warranties and all, but made up of various photographs from Pearce’s Moving Mountains series, including an essay about life on the Prairie by Tyler Dunning.
The printing quality of Midwest Dirt is really quite good, but the others are all photocopied, and therefore a bit muddy. They’re right in line with the punk ethos of zines and with the other Pearce zines I have, and for that I applaud them, but after flipping through Midwest Dirt, it’s almost hard to see anything in Crops or Sick Tat2. That said, I’m glad to have a big(ger) stack of Nathan Pearce zines, and happier to support his work.
Copies of the new edition of Midwest Dirt and its special editions are available from Halfmoon Projects, and keep an eye on Pearce’s shop: new zines pop up every now and then, and there’s some good stuff there.