A Bird’s-Eye View of America’s Spiritual Heartland 

First Light, Cherry County, Nebraska, 2013. Cattle and a heron share a drink at the tank in the residual morning fog. 

Copyright Andrew Moore

For those who don’t live there, the vast, dry and sparsely populated places west of the 100th meridian are often considered part of American “flyover country”—a landscape one might cursorily view from an airplane headed elsewhere but never visit. Andrew Moore, however, was motivated to take a closer look when he took a fateful photo at a cattle branding in Keene, North Dakota, in 2005. 

“There was a circle of cattle and calves surrounded by horses, men, women, children, and dogs—a geometric, beautiful formation of harmony within the landscape. It was a powerful photograph for me; it had this mythic quality. I thought, ‘Wow, there’s something to be made here about the relation of man and nature in this landscape,’ ’’ he said.

Storm Blow, Sheridan County, Nebraska, 2013. These dry, fallow lands and terraces lie to the southeast of Clinton. The wind coming out of the north was blowing at over 70 mph. 

Copyright Andrew Moore

Left:  Jordan Budd, Sheridan County, Nebraska, 2013. Jordan has been hunting since she was 7 years old, and while she learned about firearms from her father, she taught herself the art of bow hunting through study and continual practice. Right:  Uncle Teed, Sioux County, Nebraska, 2013. Lynn Lincoln Bauer goes by Teed, short for Teedie, a nickname drawn from his older brother’s childhood attempts to call him Sweetie as their mother did.

Copyright Andrew Moore

Homesteaders’ Tree, Cherry County, Nebraska, 2011. This tree originally stood in the yard of a two-story log house owned by Del Hatten.

Copyright Andrew Moore

That image became the inspiration for a full decade of photography in the region. In his book, Dirt Meridian, which Damiani published in September, Moore presents photos from his travels through parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and the Sand Hills of Nebraska, all of which lie west of the longitudinal line that bisects the country.

“It’s the spiritual heartland of America—this empty space, this boundlessness, the sense of possibility. This place inspires imagination. I hope [readers] come away with the idea that there’s more there than they imagined, and that it’s part of the American character, the American mythology,” he said.

The photos in Dirt Meridian combine painterly landscapes as well as portraits on the ground of the resilient people who make their homes in these places. Some of Moore’s subjects read about his project in local newspapers and invited him to come visit them. In one case, he left a note in a mailbox at a New Mexico mansion he found interesting and eventually was able to make arrangements to photograph it. Many of the people Moore met are descendants of homesteaders who moved to the region during the late 19th century.

“They’re ‘no bullshit’ people. They’re solid, they’re individualistic, and they’re self-reliant. They’re also very genuine, very open, and ultimately very creative people. The landscape, with its openness and its emptiness, really inspires the imagination to fill in the blanks,” he said.

Red Road Rock, Dunn County, North Dakota, 2013. Roadbed material is in high demand to construct new access roads to fracking sites in this part of the state.

Copyright Andrew Moore

The Murray House, Sears Roebuck Rockfaced Wizard No. 52, Sheridan County, Nebraska, 2013. This house is situated in open country just south of Rushville.  

Copyright Andrew Moore

Pronghorn Antelope, Niobrara County, Wyoming, 2013. A herd of wild antelope, which in wintertime can number into the hundreds, roams the high plains that stretch toward the Big Horn Mountains in the background.

Copyright Andrew Moore

In 2012, Moore met a crop duster and the pair started traversing the landscape in a low-flying plane just dozens of feet off the ground, approximately at the level of a windmill. This unique perspective was both “infinite and intimate,” giving Moore enough proximity to picture things on a human scalebut enough distance to see them in a wider context.

“A lot of aerial photography shot from high up is a very abstract process; you’re creating patterns in the landscape. Here it was much more of a narrative approach,” he said.

Moore’s goal was to make images about emptiness without making them totally vacant. The trick, Moore found, was to focus on some small sign of human presence—an old house, for instance, or a farm—which could highlight the boundlessness of the space around it. In these cases, the land itself could tell the story of the place.

“There [are] no mountains in my book. It’s not a classical vision of the West. The region I was in was kind of flat and empty. It took a long time to find a way to shape that. You go out there and you have that experience of getting out of your car and you’re overwhelmed by stars and space—you’re alone and at the same time fully immersed in this open space. To translate that experience into pictures was the biggest challenge.”

The Yellow Porch, Sheridan County, Nebraska, 2013. The first house on this site was built in the 1890s by the homesteader John Butler, a Swiss immigrant perhaps recruited by his countryman Jules Sandoz, the pioneer patriarch. During Prohibition the house was used for the illegal sale of alcohol; the still out back is long gone, but a bottle-drying rack remains in the basement.

Copyright Andrew Moore

School District 123, Cherry County, Nebraska, 2012. This blackboard is from a tiny rural school that served ranching families whose names can still be seen written on the board. This type of school, known as class-one, has been closed in recent years throughout the state; this one operated until 1966.

Copyright Andrew Moore