A Photo Essay's Long Journey

Photojournalist Scott Strazzante discusses his new project portraying a family farm's rebirth as a suburban subdivision.

© Scott Strazzante

From his first job at a small south Chicago paper to his current position as a staff photographer for the Chicago Tribune, Scott Strazzante has carried with him a personal project about a family farm near Lockport, Illinois. Now presented as a slide show for the Chicago Tribune Magazine titled Another Country, Strazzante's diptychs pair images of the Cagwin farm with subsequent shots from the subdivision that was built on their land. After American Photo senior editor Miki Johnson wrote about the project on the magazine's State of the Art blog, Strazzante got in touch and the two struck up a conversation about the ongoing project.

Miki Johnson: I'd like to start by talking about why this project attracted you in the first place. You initially documented the Cagwin's farm for eight years, I believe. Why did you start photographing them? How did you find them? And what kept you coming back?

Scott Strazzante: In May, 1994, I was assigned to photograph a handful of people who raised animals in Homer Township, a mostly rural area, 35 miles southwest of Chicago. Two of those people were Harlow and Jean Cagwin who owned a herd of Angus beef cattle. After a daylong shoot, of which two of the photos are in my current project, I asked the Cagwins if I could come back again and photograph them. They agreed.
Being a city boy, I was drawn to the slower way of life and the opportunity to shoot something real. Over the next five years, I didn't photograph much more than once a year but I kept in touch with Harlow and Jean.

In 1999, I moved to The Herald News in Joliet, a paper located several miles from the Cagwin farm. I pitched the farm story to the photo editor and started making regular visits. Harlow's body began to break down and the story switched from just a general farm story to one of aging. As the suburbs started to grow and populate Homer Township, Harlow and Jean started talking about selling their land and moving to another farm away from the city. In addition to the aging angle, now suburban sprawl and the disappearing family farm in Chicago's suburbs were added to the issues that this story covered.

As the story continued, The Herald News ran periodic stories on the Cagwins. In 2000, a photo story on the Cagwins was part of my first place National Newspaper Photographer of the Year portfolio in the POY contest. In 2001 I was hired by the Chicago Tribune and the farm story came with me. I owned all of the previous images so I started shooting the story with my own cameras on my own time usually on my off day Mondays. On July 2, 2002, Harlow Cagwin sat on a felled tree in his front yard as his home for the past 70-plus years was torn down behind him. An era was over. The story was published in the Tribune's Sunday magazine and in Mother Jones magazine.

MJ: In the introduction to your piece by Rick Kogan, he writes that you never intended to follow the Cagwin's to their new farm downstate, but that you always planned to go back and photograph their land. What was it about the place that compelled you more than the people?

SS: When the Cagwins moved to a new farm in Ashkum, Illinois, about an hour from their old farm, I started to photograph the Willow Walk subdivision being built. The Cagwins decided to lease out their new farm and retire in a new house on the land. I made several visits to document their new life but I decided that the Cagwin story had run its course. For the next five years, I busied myself with other stories. I had always planned on returning to the subdivision to find a family to document there but I always found an excuse not to go.

In March 2007, the subdivision found me. While speaking to a photo essay class at a community college, I showed my farm piece for the millionth time. As per usual, I said that someday I was going to go back to the land. Blah, blah, blah. After my talk, Amanda Grabenhofer, a mother of four, raised her hand and said, "I live in that subdivision." Within in a week, I was at the Willow Walk subdivision on Cinnamon Court -- a perfectly suburban cul-de-sac situated about 100 yards from where the Cagwin home once stood alone -- photographing an Easter egg hunt.

MJ: Tell me about the time you spent documenting the Grabenhofer family. Were they aware of the farmland their house was built on? Did they have a connection with farming or the land that was at all unusual?

SS: Amanda became aware of the land's history only when she saw my photo story during class. Neither the Grabenhofers nor any of their neighbors had any connection to farming or the area in general. Most had moved in from other suburbs closer to Chicago.

MJ: The introduction also talks about the similarities you began to see between the new pictures you were making and the ones you'd made years before. Can you describe what those similarities were (emotional, thematic, compositional)? Once you recognized these echoes, did you examine your old photos more carefully and consciously start to look for similar moments?

SS: As I began photographing the Grabenhofers, I had no idea of how I was going to make this story work with the farm photos. My only plan was to eventually publish a book with a chronological narrative going from the Cagwins to the cul-de-sac.

In mid-April, I was shooting the kids when Amanda and her husband Ed's oldest child Ben started wrestling with his cousin CJ. They had a jump rope and it ended up getting wrapped around Ben. As I shot this scene, I had a quick flashback to a day in 2001when I photographed Harlow wrestling with a two-day old calf that had escaped from the barn.
I played around with the two images eventually making a diptych out of them. I belong to the online group aphotoaday.org, and I posted the diptych. Immediately, I got several positive responses to the pairing. The next day, I pulled out my bulging binder filled with Cagwin negatives and started looking for pairs. I made five or so on that day. Now fresh with Cagwin memories in my brain, I began seeing echoes everywhere. Most of the diptychs came from photographing the Grabenhofers and then finding a match but several were driven by the Cagwin images, like the aerial and the view from the 2nd floor window.

MJ: In the introduction you are quoted saying, "I had no agenda. I am not anti-subdivision," and I think this project is so strong because you didn't go in with a one-sided opinion to express. But now that it is "completed," is it possible to step back and feel a few personal things about it? You've read my blog post, so you know it struck a chord for me. When you look at Another Country now, is there anything new you see in it?

SS: My view is simply that life is life. I was very lucky in finding the Cagwins and equally fortunate when the Grabenhofers found me. Harlow and Jean were wonderful photo subjects who went on living their lives like I wasn't there. As for the Grabenhofers, they are gold, with their four children, three of which are triplets, and their two dogs, one of which looks like a cow. With Amanda being a budding photographer, the children were all used to being in front of the camera. I just slid in and was making good photos from day one. There are so many more moving parts in the subdivision so it has been much easier to be playful than it was on the farm where half my photos seem to be Harlow struggling to make it through another day.

I dearly love both the Cagwins and the Grabenhofers and I don't want this essay to turn into a "the suburbs suck" essay. I enjoy photographing the everyday, the mundane and showing that captivating moments happen in everybody's life. The pairings I have constructed have mostly come from similar moments, emotions and compositions. I haven't really let societal issues influence my choices. As I continue this project, I hope to dig a little deeper and try to be a little subtler with the diptychs. But mostly I tend to shoot and let other people figure out what it's all about.

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