It began with a family reunion in 2001.
San Francisco-based photographer Nancy Warner returned to Cuming County, Neb., for a gathering at the farm homesteaded by her great-grandfather in 1865.
Warner herself grew up in Omaha, but several relatives still lived in Cuming County. As the others picnicked, she explored the vacant portion of a farmhouse on the property. What she found so intrigued her, she returned the next day with a camera.
When Warner returned to San Francisco and processed the black-and-white film, one image in particular brought out an emotional response: a lonesome, tattered dress clinging to a mangled wire hanger.
“There's just something about that forlorn little dress,” Warner said. “It looks like it's been hanging there for so long.”
Over the next seven years, Warner traveled back to Nebraska — and, on one trip, to Cass County, Iowa — and left with new rolls of film. Hers were not the big-sky, wide-angle photographs so often associated with the Great Plains, but intimate portraits of places left behind and relics all but forgotten. An old wooden piano in an otherwise empty room. Shattered windows. Exposed beams. Layers of wallpaper peeling from a decaying wall.
The images are now collected in “This Place, These People: Life and Shadow on the Great Plains,” a book of black-and-white photography now available through booksellers.
Each photo presents a snapshot of a place vacated. Together, they tell a larger story of an America fading into the landscape. The farms that gave rise to these places remain, but a host of social, economic and technological developments over the past half century have cut ownership in half. According to the book, there were 110,000 farms in Nebraska in 1950. By 2007, 50,000. In Cuming County, the population reached its high of 14,584 more than a century ago. By choice or otherwise, people moved elsewhere. In their wake are houses and possessions once fretted over, now wasting away.
With the exception of a few historical photographs, there are no faces in “This Place, These People.”
But there are voices.
David Stark, a sociologist from Columbia University, grew fascinated by Warner's photographs while visiting her in San Francisco a few years ago. The two are cousins.
Stark's past work includes ethnographic studies of Hungarian factories before and after the fall of communism, new media startups in the lead-up to and aftermath of the dot.com crash, and the financial industry before and after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
He saw a book in his cousin's photographs the moment he laid eyes on them.
“What I find most interesting in the photographs is that we typically think about living in buildings,” he said. “But we could think about it another way, which is that the buildings lived with us, and when they did, they were loved.”
Warner and Stark worked together on and off for two years. Cousins on opposite coasts, they'd meet in Omaha, rent a car and drive about an hour northwest of the city. They'd connect with relatives and acquaintances, introduce themselves to strangers and talk with them all about their lives and memories.
Pieces of those conversations, captured by Stark, are sprinkled throughout the book, bringing insight and understated humor to the inanimate beauty of Warner's photographs.
One elderly woman recalls the day an old home was to be razed. Family and bystanders gathered to see the big show. It didn't go as planned. “The tractor died, the house didn't.”
Warner and Stark drew inspiration from the work of Nebraska native Wright Morris, a writer and photographer whose 1948 book, “The Home Place,” paired photographs of threadbare objects (chairs, utensils, beds) with textual observations.
In “This Place, These People,” the connection between photograph and text is not literal. The person speaking is not necessarily referring to the facing image. The connections are more thematic, in turns wry and poignant.
Beside a photograph of a door covered in cracked paint, a man confides how hard it was when he and his wife started out on their own. “We'd pay one bill in the morning. In the afternoon, we'd worry about the ones we hadn't paid. Nights, we cried.”
Another photograph, of a window from the inside looking out, comes with a memory so sparse yet specific, it would fit right into a Cormac McCarthy novel: “I really had the coldest water that ever was with that cistern.”
Warner first exhibited the photographs from “This Place, These People” in 2008 at the Great Plains Art Museum in Lincoln, then again in 2010 at art centers in Fremont and Norfolk. She has started contacting museums and curators about a new show incorporating historical elements from the book's extensive afterword and perhaps voice recordings of residents.
“Every evolution of this project, I see the photographs in a different way,” she said.
Hanging the photos for the first exhibition felt “like putting words into sentences.” With the book, “I feel like it's a much more intimate experience.”
Its publication timing is remarkable. “This Place, These People” arrives the moment a film called “Nebraska,” directed by Omaha native Alexander Payne, reaches movie screens — and in black and white, no less.
In one pivotal scene, Bruce Dern's decrepit character, Woody Grant, returns to the house where he grew up, long since abandoned.
“It was in better shape than some of the houses I went into,” Warner said. But watching the scene brought her back to her own experience, traipsing through properties once lived in and now lifeless.
In the movie, the stoic Woody walks to the edge of the property and stares into the horizon, his thoughts left unsaid.
“That moved me tremendously,” Warner said, “I guess because I do that, too, when I'm there.”