I Dream of Dust is Ben P. Ward‘s exploration of the prairie half of Colorado, that bit of country that most people forget about when they consider the state. It’s not all mountains, as anyone who’s ever driven from, say, Eureka Springs, AR to Denver, as Mom and I did recently, and after growing tired of the amber waves of Kansas, we still had 100 miles or more of them in Colorado before we hit the Rockies. Anyway. Ward’s book gives a view into the communities that we just sped by.
Full Disclosure: this is a review copy of I Dream of Dust, provided by Temper Books. Temper is a new publisher with—at time of writing—four titles. They reached out to me about a month ago with an offer to send review copies of their books. I bought two of them myself (A Ghost Story: Photographs, reviewed last week, and Lauren Withrow’s Somewhere at the Edge of the World, review forthcoming); Temper sent I Dream of Dust. You may choose to consider this post as sponsored if you like, and my comments are my own and in no way scripted or influenced by the gift.
With that out of the way, on with the review…
One thing that struck Mom and I as we drove across the prairie were the large, nice looking (from the highway, anyway) Catholic Cathedrals that seemed to be the largest thing in any of the towns, often even larger than the grain silos. Ward didn’t show any of these, but there is a picture of a shrine in someone’s yard* and just looking at Ward’s dustily luminous landscapes and contemporary portraiture somehow reminds me of the towns I sadly didn’t stop to explore.
Now. I had an idea to review Robert Adams’ What We Bought, today, and then tie Ward’s work back to Adams and then on to another forthcoming review. Alas, the unboxing video for What We Bought isn’t scheduled to go live until September 2022 (this review was written in November 2021), so…. Apologies. I had a whole thing planned that I now can’t really write, and I sorta don’t really know what to say. Maybe I should reach out to Ward and ask him some questions, though, looking around again, I don’t know how much I really need to ask…
According to Ward, “The phogographs “explore themes of isolation, tension, and the influence of geography on identity.” The publisher’s blurb goes a bit further, describing I Dream of Dust as
A photographic exploration of isolation, tension, and masculinity in the seldom-seen region of the Eastern plains of Colorado. Disruptive in its absence, I Dream of Dust strips away context, color, and familiar visual cues, asking the viewer to remove assumptions and not idealize or criticize, but instead exist in a quiet, reflective space.Temper Books. Publisher’s blurb for I Dream of Dust, 2021. retrieved 10 November 2021.
While aware of the familiar trope of documenting “left behind” America, Ben P. Ward hopes to subvert our tendencies to romanticize nostalgia through this work and instead examine the influence of geography on identity: the tendency of people to mirror the land they inhabit and the tendency of the land to be equally shaped by its inhabitants.
I’m not sure I got that out of it, to be honest. For me, I Dream of Dust is a more or less tender and familiar portrait of the people and plains of Eastern Colorado. The people look pretty much like they live in a farming the country, and I don’t think they’re playing dress up or anything. Go an hour west of me, here in Dallas, and the people and place will look pretty much the same for about 500 miles; going north, they’re pretty much the same all the way to Canada, or nearly there anyway. Looking through the book eight, ten times, I didn’t think about politics at all, and given my familiarity with “the country,” I don’t really have any nostalgia for it; I don’t romanticize it. Life out there is hard, and it’s hard in ways that I’ll never know, living as I do in a big city and working for a large corporation. And if Ward’s subjects are shaped by their environment, well, everyone else is too, and I’m not quite sure you can show that in pictures anyway, not with any specificity anyway.
Don’t get me wrong: Ward’s photography is solid all the way around. He knows his way around a landscape, an interior, a detail shot, a portrait, and his subject—the Eastern Plains of Colorado and its denizens—is something we don’t see too often. I mean, I already admitted to speeding right on by on my way somewhere else… And if I look at it and only see the nebulous “country,” if I don’t recognize the people themselves, the place itself, well, shame on me.
If you’re familiar with Ward’s video work, you may recognize some of his subjects. Carlin Stratton, who stars in Ward’s video for Logan Farmer’s “Rome, through a fog,” for example, appears on the cover of the book, about halfway through, and in the final picture (but not in the Acknowledgements), and I’m pretty sure I recognize a few others gentlemen too. In fact, I’m pretty sure a few I recognize a few of the locations from Ward’s videos in the book, and some of the images in the book could almost be stills from the videos. It’s clear that Ward knows and cares about this place and these people.
If I recall, Soth, Hido, and maybe swerdnaekalb shared positive thoughts about the book in their Instagram Stories maybe two weeks ago. And if my rambling comments aren’t enough, Julian Hory’s review in Fisheye (en français) shares some direct quotes from Ward about the project, and also reveals that the work was shot on 4×5, which I probably should’ve recognized,** and which maybe goes some way to explaining some of the similarities I see to other work.
A few of the dusty landscapes sorta remind me of Todd Hido’s landscape work, and sorta of Jason Lee’s; the details recall Gregory Halpern; some of the portraits remind me of Alec Soth (and one looks like it could be a Saul Leiter, if Leiter shot in small country towns); I’m also reminded of Nathan Pearce’s work in downstate Illinois. This is all to repeat myself… Ward knows what he’s doing, and I Dream of Dust is a great first book.
Overall, I Dream of Dust scores a solid 3.6 stars.
I Dream of Dust remains available direct from Temper and elsewhere, and Ward’s website and Instagram are worth a look. His video work and color photographs are solid, and I wish he linked to the various things in his “Press/Publications” list, as he apparently appeared on a podcast that I’d love to hear, but can’t find. Anyway. Check him out.
And check out Temper Books too. Their model seems different, and I may send them some questions, publish a sort of textual interview later. If you have any questions, pass them on! As noted above, they provided this book gratis and I deeply appreciate their generosity and the nice things they said (privately) about my little blog. Really, I’m quite chuffed, as my wife would say, to get this bit of recognition, and big thanks, again, to Noah Kalina for pointing them my way.
*My knowledge of Catholic symbols is lacking: the shrine features someone kneeling, facing Mary, who is surrounded by flowers and rays of holiness or something. It’s in a sort of shed with an internal light and plexiglass front.
** On the book’s sale page, Temper Books’ Artist notes points out that “I Dream of Dust … was captured entirely on large format film.” Read, James; :facepalm:.