PHOTOGRAPHING MINNESOTA COMMUNITIES remains a focal point of my photography. I love to document people, places and events with my camera.
My photos present visual stories. I suppose you could say I am both the writer and the editor. I choose what to photograph and how. I decide, in the moment, whether to show you a detailed up-close subject or whether to cover a broader area. Both are important in storytelling. I also decide the perspective from which I will photograph. Down low. Eye level. Or some other angle.
During a recent visit to Northfield, one of my favorite Minnesota communities about a 20-minute drive away, I had exactly 10 minutes to photograph before our food order was ready for pick up on the other side of town. I asked Randy to act as time-keeper. When I’m photographing, I lose all track of time, so engaged am I in the creative process.
We parked near Bridge Square, the heart of downtown Northfield and a community gathering spot. On this late January afternoon with the temp not quite 20 degrees and with COVID-19 reducing the number of visitors to this typically busy downtown, I observed only a few people out and about. Often finding a place to park proves challenging. Not so on this Saturday.
We walked toward Bridge Square, adjacent to the Cannon River. Turning the corner off Division Street, the wind sliced cold across my face. I knew that exposing my fingers to snap the shutter button of my camera would be numbing. My mittens, which open to finger-less gloves, help. I’d highly recommend these if you work a camera in a cold weather environment like Minnesota.
For the next 10 minutes, while Randy walked ahead of me—I always lag when I’m photographing—I concentrated on the half-block square area around me. The signs. The buildings. A woman and her dog. The river.
In this short segment of time, I composed a short story, or at least the beginning of one. With these minimal images, I show you history, nature, voices. A glimpse in to the heart and soul of Northfield. This brings me joy, this ability to follow my passion, to share with you these visual stories through my photography.
He inspired. He uplifted. He encouraged. He used words, like those spoken in his “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963 during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, to affect change. “I have a dream…my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Change came in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Change came in shifting attitudes and edging toward equality. Yet, we still have a long ways to go. Peaceful protests during the past year, especially, underscore the social injustice issues that still exist in our society. So do the many Black Lives Matter signs I’ve photographed in recent months.
In my own southern Minnesota community, I’ve observed, listened to, read of the challenges our Somali immigrant families face. In language barriers. In educational disparity. In housing. In prejudice. Many organizations, like the Faribault Diversity Coalition, local churches, schools, St. Vincent de Paul, government agencies and more, are reaching out, helping, supporting. For that I feel grateful.
But we also need to step up individually—speaking up, for example, when we hear derogatory remarks about our new neighbors or anyone of color. I admit to not always voicing my objections, although I often do.
I regret not speaking to a young man who, for months, flew a Confederate flag (along with an American flag) on the back of his pick-up truck. I worried how he would react if I approached him. Thankfully, he eventually removed this blatant public symbol of hatred/racism. I was relieved. Still, the root issues remain. And, as troubling as this Confederate flag was to me, I can only imagine how disconcerting, threatening and offensive this felt to anyone of color in my community.
Yes, much still remains to be accomplished. But we have made progress. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr set us on the course nearly 70 years ago as did others in the Civil Rights Movement. A peaceful course. As one coming of age in the turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s, I gravitated to the word peace. It was everywhere, especially in the peace symbol. Many decades later, I still hold that word close to my heart. Peace. Just give peace a chance.
In the words of King: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”
And more inspiring words from this Nobel Peace Prize winner and Civil Rights Movement leader: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
FYI: The Faribault Diversity Coalition celebrates its 7th annual Martin Luther King Day Breakfast with a virtual event from 9 – 10 am today. Click here for details. In neighboring Northfield, the Human Rights Commission will hold a virtual event themed to “In This Together” at 7 pm. Click here for info.
COVID-19 RANKS AS THE STORY of 2020, including here on Minnesota Prairie Roots. Since early March, I’ve photographed hundreds of scenes that relate to the pandemic. I’ve scrolled through my many COVID-themed posts to showcase a selection of images that summarize the pandemic’s effects on our lives.
For me, the most personal image is also a universal one. In early March, I visited my mom, who is in hospice in a southwestern Minnesota nursing home. I didn’t know it then, but this would mark my last in-person visit with her in 2020. The last time I would hug her, kiss her cheeks. For our seniors living in long-term care centers, 2020 brought isolation, separation from family and, for too many, death. The empty chair in this photo symbolizes the absence of family.
March also brought shortages. Of toilet paper. Of hand sanitizer. Of Lysol wipes. Of Tylenol. I stocked up on a few supplies. Just enough to get us by if we got sick and couldn’t get out.
Separation brought a new appreciation for technology with our family connecting via Zoom from the north metro to Madison, Wisconsin, to Faribault.
The deadly reality of COVID-19 hit home when the Rev. Craig Breimhorst of Faribault died in April, the first of now 52 Rice County residents to lose their lives to the virus. My heart hurts for all those who are grieving, some of whom I know.
Signs remind us daily of COVID, including messages bannered on the Paradise Center for the Arts marquee as theaters, restaurants, libraries, museums and more closed to prevent the spread of the virus.
Even playgrounds became inaccessible as communities roped and fenced off equipment (including at North Alexander Park in Faribault) to stop the spread of COVID. Since then, we’ve learned a lot more about the virus, with surface spread not the primary form of transmission.
In May, while watching a car cruise in downtown Faribault, I photographed a local walking along the sidewalk wearing a face mask. This is my “favorite” COVID photo. Simple. Yet powerful. Face masks, by mid-summer, became the norm. Yet, some still refuse to wear them, or wear them improperly, an ongoing source of frustration for me. Minnesota has a face mask mandate for a reason—to stop the spread of COVID and to keep us safe. Just wear a mask. And over your nose, please.
The pandemic changed how many of us worship. Randy and I have not attended church services since early March. When our kids learned we had been to Sunday morning services, they advised (told) us not to continue attending in-person. Our eldest remarked that she and her friends were struggling to convince their Baby Boomer parents of COVID’s seriousness. It didn’t take us long to determine just how serious this virus; we’ve attended church online ever since. In my hometown church, the pastor took to preaching from a hay rack. St. John’s now worships in-house.
High school and college graduation ceremonies also pivoted, mostly to virtual celebrations. In Northfield, Minnesota, the community honored grads with banners posted downtown. Some families still hosted receptions. We opted out, not wanting to risk our health.
Our sole social activity this summer was attending outdoor concerts in Faribault’s Central Park nearly every Thursday evening. It’s a long-time community tradition. We felt safe there with concert-goers distancing throughout the sprawling park. Some wore masks, like the couple in this photo, with a rope defining social distancing lines.
The annual Faribault Pet Parade in August also went on, but as a drive-through only. No masses of kids and pets walking in the streets. Randy and I watched, all by ourselves in our lawnchairs positioned along Fourth Street, and I spotted one vehicle with a COVID message.
For many, the cancellation of county fairs, and then the Minnesota State Fair in August, dashed any hopes that summer could retain any normalcy. Food stands, like this one at Ace Hardware in Faribault, popped up in parking lots and elsewhere.
In Northfield, the Defeat of Jesse James Days celebration scaled back. Randy and I walked through Bridge Square, where I photographed a solo guitar player strumming. It was a lovely September day, minus the overcrowding typical of DJJD.
September took us to the central Minnesota lakes region for a short stay at a family member’s guest lake cabin. While en route, we stopped in Crosby, where I photographed this distinctly Minnesotan masking sign.
In November, when the COVID situation in Minnesota went to really bad, I photographed a hard-hitting electronic message above US Highway 14 in Rochester, home to the world-renowned Mayo Clinic. Concerns about hospital bed shortages not only concerned Minnesota, but the entire US. And this was about more than just COVID.
One of my final COVID photos of 2020 was taken at Fourth Avenue United Methodist Church, posted there by the Rev. Greg Ciesluk, also a friend. His message puts the virus in perspective. As we transition into 2021 with vaccines rolling out, I feel hopeful. Truly hopeful.
RECENTLY, I NEEDED to replenish my stash of library books. That meant a trip to the Northfield Public Library 20 minutes away. The Faribault library remains closed to in-person visits due to COVID-19. I’m the type of reader who needs to browse shelves, hold a book and read its summary before deciding whether to check it out.
Plus, Northfield, COVID or not, always rates as a delightful community to visit.
As soon as Randy and I pulled up to the Northfield library, I noticed a small tree draped with winter scarves near the base of the library hill. But first things first. Books.
But this time, hand-knit scarves hung among the branches, each with a note attached indicating these are part of the 100 Kind Deeds Day Project. Need a scarf or other winter wear (I spotted a single hat)? Take one.
Watching videos of Nika, I am amazed at how much she’s overcome, how confident and strong in the face of challenges. Nika truly inspires. She makes this world a much better place with her hands-on care, with her positive attitude, with her motto to live life with enthusiasm. And with her kindness.
I LOVE FINDING KINDNESS STONES. I appreciate the effort an artist or wordsmith takes to craft a message, add some art and then drop the stone in a public place. Each time I discover these sweet surprises, I feel uplifted. And I wonder about the individual inspired to show such kindness.
On a recent weekend, while out and about, I didn’t discover any inspirational stones. Rather I found several items left behind, the first at Medford Straight River Park. An abandoned purple scooter leaned against a picnic table in the shelterhouse near the playground with no kid in sight. As Randy and I ate our picnic lunch, a Grandma showed up with her 5-year-old granddaughter to reclaim the well-used scooter, forgotten the previous evening. How small town, I thought.
The next day, while picnicking again, this time at Mill Park in Dundas, I noted black-frame glasses stuck in the crack of a picnic table. What is it about picnic tables and stuff left behind? Now, if I’d left my glasses behind, I would struggle to see, such is the state of my vision. Randy checked and confirmed the lost glasses were cheaters. Whew.
From Mill Park, we crossed the Cannon River pedestrian bridge to Memorial Park by the ball field.
There, by the playground, sat two perfectly fine lawn chairs. Opened, as if someone had recently occupied the two spots. But there were no adults, no kids, anywhere, except a couple picnicking by the ball diamond, bikes parked nearby. Obviously not their chairs.
Next, we drove to Northfield, parked downtown and walked around. While crossing the pedestrian bridge over the Cannon River, I discovered a mini skull atop dirt in an otherwise empty flower box hanging on the bridge. The skull looked pretty darned real to me. But then I remembered that just days earlier it was Halloween and I figured that was the reason someone left a skull behind.
TELL ME: Have you ever found something particularly interesting left in a public place? I’d like to hear about your odd discoveries.
I STOOD NEXT TO THE RIVER, camera aimed across the dark waters of the Cannon River to the historic building on the east bank. To the building with the gaping hole on the top floor. I struggled to hold my zoom lens still in the fierce wind of the bitterly cold Sunday afternoon. Viewing the devastating scene before me, I felt a deep sense of loss. No image I framed can fully capture the depths of loss for this southeastern Minnesota community. Material. Financial. Historic. Emotional.
Last Thursday, November 12, at around 3:30 pm, fire broke out in a restaurant’s meat smoker inside the historic Archer House in downtown Northfield and quickly spread. The 1877 sprawling inn anchors the historic downtown on the north end. It’s perhaps the most recognizable of this community’s landmarks and much-loved.
But of one thing I’m certain, if this historic river inn can be saved, it will be.
When I photographed the fire, water and smoke-damaged structure days after the fire, many others were doing the same. After viewing the inn from the west side of the Cannon, I moved to the east side, along Division Street, to get a full front view. This “landmark for hospitality and elegance” built in the French Second Empire Style stood tall and stately still, yet marred now by shattered windows, missing roof, fallen brick, and other debris.
First I photographed from across the street, atop the hill by the Northfield Public Library, stepping across a dormant flowerbed next to a wrought iron railing. Later I descended to street level to also include the street barriers and yellow tape that keep onlookers away from the scene.
No matter the photographic perspective, the view looked the same. Devastating.
THE CITY OF NORTHFIELD, about a 20-minute drive northeast of my Faribault home, has long-rated as one of my favorite Minnesota communities. For many reasons.
It’s situated along the banks of the Cannon River, making for a picturesque setting.
Homegrown businesses fill the historic downtown, which edges the river. Here you’ll still find an independent bookstore plus antique shops, boutiques, restaurants, an arts center, the public library and much more.
And, in the heart of Northfield’s business district you’ll also find a community gathering spot. Bridge Square. Here you can buy popcorn from a vintage wagon in the summer, take the kids or grandkids to visit Santa during the holiday season. You can rest here on a bench and engage in conversation. Watch the river flow by or the water fall over the fountain sculpture or the nearby dam.
But Bridge Square is so much more than a Norman Rockwell-like place to meet, gather and relax. It’s also a spot where opinions are expressed. Students from St. Olaf and Carleton, two noted private liberal arts colleges based in Northfield, use this space to gather and voice their concerns. And, even though I may not always agree with their views, I appreciate that they share them. To see young people concerned enough about an issue to publicly express their thoughts gives me hope.
For the first time in a long time, I feel hope. Out of all the chalked messages I read on Sunday while at Bridge Square, I found one that really spoke to me. Peace vs division. Oh, how we need that. Peace. Not division.
That stop at Northfield’s town square, with so many issues printed in chalk on cement, could easily have overwhelmed me. I could have despaired at all the problems that need fixing. But rather, I choose to see this as an acknowledgment of concerns. Of the possibilities. Of the solutions. Of choices which can bring peace rather than division.
NOTE: This post features photos from a mid-August stop at the historic Waterford bridge near Northfield, Minnesota.
The historic Waterford Bridge, located in Waterford Township in Dakota County, Minnesota.
TO THE MINNESOTA DEPARTMENT of Transportation, the historic Waterford Bridge some two miles northeast of Northfield is tagged as bridge number L3275. I suppose bridges, like roads, require such numerical identifiers.
This is truly an artful and unique bridge in southern Minnesota.
Much more than a name or number, this “140-foot, steel, riveted and bolted, Camelback through truss on concrete abutments” bridge, according to MnDOT, stands as an historic bridge spanning the Cannon River.
The new plain-looking bridge.
Rare in design here in Minnesota, the 1909 bridge closed to vehicle traffic in 2009 and was rehabilitated in 2014. A new, non-descript modern bridge replaced it.
Weeds, wildflowers and other plant growth surround the bridge.
I’ve long wanted to see the old bridge in Waterford Township as it reminds me of a similar truss bridge from my childhood. That bridge took US Highway 71/Minnesota State Highway 19 traffic across the Minnesota River near Morton. When my dad drove our family Chevy across the bridge en route to Minneapolis once a year to visit relatives, my siblings and I pounded on the interior roof to scare any trolls lurking underneath at water’s edge. That all seems silly now, reflecting as an adult. But, back then, it was great fun.
The narrow path to the bridge.
I stopped along the path to photograph a butterfly atop a thistle. I saw multiple butterflies.
Fast forward to today and my desire to see a similar-in-design bridge. Randy had actually driven across the Waterford Bridge at one time while doing some automotive repair work for a farmer in the area. So he easily found it. After parking, we set out to reach the bridge, weaving through a narrow pathway bordered by trees, thistles, goldenrod, wildflowers and other plants. Boulders blocked the deteriorating paved trail to motor vehicle traffic.
I hesitated, but only for a moment.
Upon reaching the bridge, I wondered if we should even venture onto it given the BRIDGE CLOSED—BRIDGE NOT SAFE NO TRESPASSING signage. But the deck looked safe…and many others had obviously been here before us.
In need of paint, or perhaps replacement.
The Waterford Bridge spans the Cannon River.
There’s lots of graffiti on the bridge.
Once on the bridge, I was surprised at its condition. Rusting metal. Flaking paint. Weathered boards. Graffiti. Vandalized signage. Cracked pavement.
Historical details on a sign posted high above the bridge deck.
As I walked, dodging dog poop, I considered the condition of the bridge built by the Hennepin Bridge Company with Dakota County Surveyor Charles A. Forbes leading the project design. His name and that of other government officials are listed on a plaque atop one end of the bridge which now appears abandoned to the elements. The bridge is also on the National Register of Historic Places.
Tubers exit the Cannon River near the new Waterford Bridge.
The new Waterford Bridge photographed from the old bridge with tubers in the distance at river’s edge.
A couple carries their kayaks along the narrow path leading to the historic Waterford Bridge.
Under that bridge, the Cannon River flows, muddy and brown, carrying tubers, canoeists and kayakers—we met two of them, saw others—to places eastward. We watched as one couple carried their kayaks along the narrow path to the bridge with plans to travel eight miles to Randolph, a journey they expected to take three hours.
The muddy Cannon River, a popular waterway for water sport enthusiasts.
It was a lovely summer day to be on the water. Or, like us, to walk across an historic bridge that, for me, bridges past to present via childhood memories.
I learned of this honor only recently via Northfield Poet Laureate Rob Hardy. A gifted poet and tireless promoter of poets and poetry, he submitted the collection to the debut contest sponsored by the Minnesota Library Foundation, Minnesota libraries and Bibliolabs.
According to the MN Reads MN Writes website, the new contest is designed “to recognize community-created writing and to highlight the central role that libraries play in providing support for local authors and the communities they serve.”
I crafted my poem, “Life at Forty Degrees,” in response to Hardy’s 2018 call for submissions to an anthology of “poetic living wills.”
The content of the poetry collections is summarized as “poems (that) deal with death and dying, with the things that make life meaningful in the face of death, and with the legacies that the poets hope to leave behind or have received from others before them.” My poem, about hanging laundry on the clothesline, focuses on the legacy passed on to me by my grandmothers.
The winner of the first-ever Minnesota Authors Project: Communities Create contest will be announced later this month at the annual Minnesota Library Association’s annual conference. No matter the outcome, I feel honored to stand in the “finalist” category with 15 other gifted poets from Northfield and nearby (like me from Faribault).
I love the bold hues of this mural mixed with grey and black.
Flowers bloom in bold colors painted onto an exterior block wall in the heart of downtown Northfield.
Mural on the Domino’s building.
Just a half block off Division Street, up the hill from Bridge Square, on the building housing Domino’s Pizza, a colorful mural stretches, drawing appreciative onlookers. Including me. During Northfield’s The Defeat of Jesse James Days celebration last Saturday, many a passerby posed for photos against the colorful and inspiring backdrop.
The signature of mural artist Brett Whitacre on a corner of the mural.
And perhaps that is the unconscious draw. We all need LOVE. More than ever right now. These are difficult days of dealing with a relentless and deadly virus, social unrest and injustices, and a country in turmoil.
I expect the LOVE mural will continue to be a popular photo backdrop, especially for couples holding their wedding receptions at The Grand Event Center just across the street.
To pause for a moment in the chaos and appreciate this beautiful example of uplifting public art is to take a respite. To choose for a moment to embrace LOVE. That one emotion we all need. That connects us. If we allow it to do so.