Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Volume 28, Number 2, Spring 2008, pp. 105-33.
These lyrics capture a yearning for a place to call home. But what landscape is associated with this longing? For people living near the coasts or mountains of America, it must be hard to imagine longing for a "home on the plains"-but many Americans have had, and still have, a home on the Plains. The stereotypical American image of the Plains is flatness, austerity, emptiness. Not all would consider this an ideal landscape for home. So how did the people who settled on the Plains "view" this landscape? What did they see? How did this land come to be recognized as that of home? In Walter Prescott Webb's The Great Plains (1931), Webb argues that when the Plains settlers had to adapt to their new environment, "they were compelled to make a radical readjustment in their way of life."
In p~rticular, Webb focused on the "treeless, flat, and semiaridity" of the Plains and the key developments of railroads, barbed wire, windmills, and improved farm machinery and methods.3 But another technology was key to the transformation of the Plains: photography. I argue that photography was central to Plains settlers' "radically readjusting" to living on the Plains and conceptually recognizing the Plains as home.
Photographs taken during the settlement process reveal how Plains settlers were "placing themselves" into the landscape as they were constructing their homes on the Plains. More significantly, photographing the Plains aided settlers in learning "Plains-viewing," that is, in learning the "new ways of seeing" that would transform the Plains from an unfamiliar landscape to home. Photograph albums capture the physical as well as conceptual "place-making" of the Plains, constructed as they were by individuals to reflect their particular view of the Plains and their lives.