On the Shortest Day: The Northern Prairie + Siberia, by W. Scott Olsen + Valeriy Klamm

On the Shortest Day: The Northern Prairie + Siberia

By W. Scott Olsen + Valeriy Klamm

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From the Northern Prairie, by W. Scott Olsen

Here is a truth about facts and reputation. The dramatic facts stick. 

Leave them alone for a while, and the dramatic facts settle in, become assumed, expected, somehow more grounded in the fabric of the planet. The dramatic facts, like the temperature of the air, become a baseline reputation. And reputation, if unchallenged, becomes legend, myth, a version of what Plato would call truth.

So imagine Siberia. And imagine the Northern Prairies of the United States. Chances are you just imagined cold. 

We have summer in Siberia and Dakota. We have gentle springtime rains, apocalyptic thunderstorms, heat waves, tornadoes, pearlescent rivers, the planting of crops and then harvest in autumn, pumpkins and bonfires and apple trees and young lovers staring at each other on warm evenings under starlight.

Our springtimes and summers and autumns are not extraordinary. But our winters are different. We have wolves in winter. We have snowfall and blizzards and wind chill and worry if someone gets too far from home. 

How similar are we?

A few months ago Russian photographer Valeriy Klamm and I were talking about how interesting it would be to work on a shared project. We both live in regions that tend toward legend and myth. Valeriy lives in Novosibirsk, a town in central Russia on the Ob River, population nearly 1.5 million. I live in the United States, at the border of Minnesota and North Dakota, where the towns of Fargo and Moorhead are really the same place, a small river dividing one from the other. Population just over 200,000.

What if we took one day, we thought, and both of us were to head out to photograph where we live, as we see it? What if we were to run the photographs as a kind of duet? We would not try to match locations—not try for two shots of some same thing we share, no two shots of a frozen park or coffee shop or cop—the portraits of our towns would be as much an artistic expression of our ways of seeing as a documentary of what we saw. And what if we took the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice, December 21st, to celebrate the way the words Siberia and Dakota make people in other parts of the world shiver and say a prayer of thankfulness? 

This, we thought, could be fun.

For both of us, the forecast was for snow and deepening cold. Minus 20 Fahrenheit for me. Minus 20 Celsius for him.

I set out at 3:00 a.m., just after new snow had fallen, to capture the Amtrak Empire Builder train as it stopped in town. I had a shot list that spanned the day. A variety store. A car wash in the very cold. An intensive care unit for infants at the hospital. A performance at a community theatre. Landscapes. A favorite café. What I wanted was to show a hint of the breadth, and a hint of the love, to life where I live.

These are what I consider the dramatic facts.

The Northern Prairie
Gallery by W. Scott Olsen

Images in this gallery may not be copied or otherwise used without express written consent of the artist. Click image to view in larger size or to begin slideshow:

From Siberia, by Valeriy Klamm

We met because of LensCulture—I’d read Scott’s article about photo books and decided to knock on his Facebook door with the aim to share with him my self-publishing experience (ByTheWay project). I guess Northern people are dynamic, maybe because of environment: you move and stay warm—or you die. Our idea exchange was fast. We came up with the Shortlight’s Day concept: stereo-gaze, from the different, about the common.

The word Siberia contains the letters S, I, B – sib, kinship. That’s how I am accustomed to act while capturing for my Birthmarks on the Map provincial photoblog: as a close one. But in this case I tried to play the different role of stranger’s attitude and gaze.

I live in the big city, so I started on my own in my surroundings. Then my younger acquaintance Evgeny became my guide to his “hidden valley.” After that I came to my parents’ apartment and went to visit friends in the village 100 kilometers apart, and finished my day in their small house.

It is not a straight narrative. Just a puzzle of the impressions during this short-but-long day, marked with exact time when pictures were captured. So here is the report written by the ShortlIight.

Gallery by Valeriy Klamm

Images in this gallery may not be copied or otherwise used without express written consent of the artist. Click image to view in larger size or to begin slideshow:



W. Scott OlsenW. Scott Olsen is a Professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where he also edits the literary magazine Ascent. His most recent book is A Moment with Strangers: Essays and Photographs at Home and Abroad (NDSU Press, 2016).
Valeriy KlammValeriy Klamm is a visual blogger based in Novosibirsk, Russia. He focuses on the theme of Russian provinces, “simple stories of simple heroes in simple circumstances.” He also maintains a unique visual archive, based in Siberia: daily life of RuRu/RuralRussia.

Header photo by Valeriy Klamm.

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