Photographers Focus on the 50 States

Travel Blog  •  Jenna Schnuer  •  03.10.09 | 4:33 PM ET

Photo by Shawn Gust. Courtesy of The 50 States Project.

The Works Progress Administration did it. Musician Sufjan Stevens has done a bit of it. Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey got a whole bunch of people to do it. And, um, Sophia and I are deep into our own version of it.

The it in question? Exploring, one by one, what makes each of the 50 states unique—and looking for the threads that tie them together. Now it’s time to add another to the list: The 50 States Project. Every other month, 50 photos—one from each state—will be posted on the site. Flyover America checked in with Stuart Pilkington, the U.K.-based (we’ll get to that) creator and curator of the project to find out what it’s all about.

Why did you launch The 50 States Project? You’re UK-based, right? Why did you want to focus on the U.S. in this way? Why now?

Pilkington: Okay, well I have a Moleskine book—I always wanted to be Ernest Hemingway—where I jot down my ideas for future projects or just ideas in general. I knew for 2009 I wanted to create a project that meant I wasn’t involved as a photographer, just purely the curator.

So it was the last few months of 2008 and a few things happened which finally gave birth to the 50 States Project. I knew already that I wanted to involve the great and burgeoning talent that is based in the U.S. I’m based in the UK but my focus has always been on the branch of art photography that I would suggest started in the U.S. with the likes of William Eggleston, Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld.

At the same time the U.S. election started to grip our attention in the UK. Television and print also began to focus their attention on the election and the country as a whole. It seemed everyone was finally allowed to fall in love with the U.S. all over again after a rather troubled and confusing eight years. One of the programs on TV was called Stephen Fry in America and over six episodes the actor and comedian visited every state in a London taxi. This program and a visit from my father who as a memory exercise was learning all the capitals of the 50 States suddenly gave me the eureka moment. I could kill two birds with one stone a) by learning about this country that I thought I knew a lot about but in reality didn’t and b) involve the next generation of art and documentary photographers whose work I love so much.

How did you find the photographers for it?

Well, this was the unknown quantity for me at the beginning. I knew from inviting photographers for my previous projects that there was a huge wealth of artists based in New York and California but I really wasn’t sure if there was a wealth of talent based in the other states. So to begin with I sent invites to five photographers to see whether my idea connected with anybody. 

To my delight Brian Ulrich, who is currently located in Illinois, came back and gave it the thumbs up. I was very heartened by this and he was a great catalyst for the project. He provided a long list of individuals many of whom you see taking part in the project now. It was then a domino effect as photographers came on board they suggested other names in other states. I also gained a lot of help from people like Liz Kuball, Casey Kelbaugh and Michael David Murphy who generously pitched in with names.

And for finding individuals in the remaining few states it was just a case of wading through trusty old Google to find what treasures lay beneath.

In the first round of photos, what surprised you the most? Were there any themes that repeated through several states?

The quality of the images has pleased me immensely. I think everyone has stepped up to the plate and responded to the brief with flying colors. It’s a joy working your way through the images.

I think what has surprised me the most are the similarities and the contradictions. It is indeed a vast land and in some ways it would be better to link the states geographically maybe going from north to south or east to west. 

At this time of year there is the most obvious distinction of the weather—the northern states are riddled with snow and yet as you move south the subjects in the images are bathed in sunlight.

The photographers have also highlighted some of the immediate concerns for the U.S. in 2009 as well as the hope. There is the underlying theme of the biting recession in the property market and the car industry. The environment is touched upon and the legacy of the previous administration. In some states celebrity is looked at and in others religion and race. You can see a progressive attitude in some areas and more conservative feel in others.

Indeed I think you can even detect a certain shift in expression and style as you move from one end to the other. I think there is definitely a west coast and an east coast sensibility in the work produced.

In summary, it’s a very hard task of the photographers to represent a whole state with one image but I’m very hopeful after such as strong start that by the end of the project the 300 images that will have been produced will be a) something rewarding to look at and b) help document something of the nature of the country as it heads into pastures new.

Jenna Schnuer

Freelancer Jenna Schnuer writes about travel, food, culture, books, and life's quirky bits (and bites) for publications including American Way, National Geographic Traveler, Southern Living, and many others. She also co-writes Flyover America, a site filled with quieter stories from around the U.S. Send Jenna an email or, if you're so inclined, follow her on Twitter.

2 Comments for Photographers Focus on the 50 States

Jen Singer 03.11.09 | 1:53 PM ET

I can only imagine New Jersey’s photo. I hope it isn’t the refineries along the Turnpike or even The Stone Pony. There’s more to us than chemicals and Springsteen.

Jenna Schnuer 03.12.09 | 2:27 PM ET

Worry not. Each state’s photographer is from the state—so it’s the people who know it and love it well (or, well enough).

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.