Posted by: kerryl29 | April 26, 2012

The Other Midwest

“I had no idea that there were places like that in Illinois.”

That was the gist of a number of comments made regarding the images I posted of Starved Rock and Matthiessen State Parks in my previous entry.  The remarks, frankly, aren’t surprising.

St. Louis Canyon Waterfall, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

For those of you who are generally unfamiliar with the terrain of the United States, the conventional wisdom is that Midwest states, like Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, are essentially flat farmland; “flyover country” is the common expression.  And, like most stereotypes, it has some basis in fact.  The northern halves of these states–and the southern halves of Wisconsin and the lower peninsula of Michigan–are in fact, largely flat.  But the other parts of these states are quite hilly–bordering on low mountains, in some cases–and even in the conventionally flat parts of the states, the river valleys are a notable exception.

Rocky Hollow, Turkey Run State Park, Indiana

Starved Rock and Matthiessen are located in the Illinois River Valley, in north central Illinois, and while the canyon settings are unusual, they are by no means unique.  Turkey Run State Park, in west-central Indiana and Hocking Hills State Park, in central Ohio, bear a great deal of topographical resemblance to the aforementioned Illinois parks, for instance, as does Fall Creek Gorge Preserve in northwest Indiana and Pewits Nest State Natural Area in central Wisconsin.

Lower Brandywine Falls, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio

The larger point is that there are numerous places in the Midwest that blow the “flat wasteland” stereotype to smithereens.  That’s the focus of this blog entry.

Red Jack Lake, Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan

I don’t want to oversell the point.  The American Midwest is not, in my estimation, some sort of undiscovered photographic Shangri-La.  There is a reason why the most popular landscape destinations in North America are virtually all in the West.  I myself will be heading to Utah and Nevada for 10-odd days of photography in little more than a week.  But the Midwest has its share of spots of understated beauty; they’re not nearly as numerous or as spectacular as those out West, and we’ll never see droves of western state photographers tripping over one another to seek out landscape opportunities in the Heartland.

Tunnel Falls, Clifty Falls State Park, Indiana

In broad terms, you have to put in a little extra work when it comes to Midwest landscapes, both to find compelling examples and to make the most of them–at least in comparison to the iconic locations out West.  I’ve spoken at some length on this topic with a number of photographic friends and acquaintances who cut their teeth shooting the landscapes of the American Midwest before moving on to other geographic areas in North America (California, the Pacific Northwest, Utah, the Canadian Rockies, etc.) and–quite literally to a person–every single one of them has agreed that composing and capturing Midwestern landscapes is significantly more difficult than those in the more iconic spots in which they now reside.  And, to take it a step further, they all agreed that the experience of shooting initially and at length in the Midwest made their subsequent endeavors much easier.  (“It’s like shooting fish in a barrel,” one of them told me, in reference to photographing Oregon landscapes after developing the craft in the Midwest.)

Pewits Nest State Natural Area, Wisconsin

In that respect, I feel as though I jumped into the deep end of the pool–without swimming lessons or a flotation device–some years ago when I decided to get serious about photographing the landscape.  The learning curve may have been steep, but I feel as though I was able to develop more quickly–from an aesthetic standpoint–than would have been the case if I had been embedded in an area with more “obvious” subject matter and naturally self-composing stimuli.

Elliott Creek at Miners Beach, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

Here in the Midwest, the postcard shots are at a minimum.  There are no snow-capped peaks reflected in alpine lakes.  No spectacular thousands-of-feet-deep canyons.  No broad deserts with fascinating hoodoos.  No rocky ocean beaches littered with seastacks.

Above Upper Cataract Falls, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area, Indiana

What we have here, when you get past the areas of dense development and agriculture, is a lot of cluttered forests, a lot of difficult to navigate rivers and creeks, with ponds and lakes tossed in for good measure.  Amidst all of this, however, we have some real gems.  I’m quite convinced I’ve scarcely scratched this particular surface, though I try to constantly keep my eyes open.

Lake of the Clouds Sunrise, Porcupine Mountains State Park, Michigan

And with that, I’m off to the deserts of southern Utah and Nevada in eight days. 🙂



  1. Beautiful!

  2. Just beautiful!! (I see someone else got that comment in before me 🙂 )

    • That’s okay. 🙂 Thanks!

  3. Wonderful post! That last photo, especially, from the porcupine mountains is spectacular!

    • Thanks very much!

  4. wow. you tell them. er… us

    thanks for the info 😉

  5. Breathtaking!!!

  6. Great photos. The misty water effect is brilliant and i must agree with John Mullinax that the last photo is spectacular. Keep up the great work.

    • Thanks very much.

  7. stunning landscape and images…world is a beautiful place

    • Thanks…and, agreed!

  8. absolutely stunning photographs, and a superb read…excellent!

    • Much appreciated, thank you!

  9. You most certainly have made the best of what you had to work with- some incredible shots here. I’m sold.

    • Thank you very much!

  10. Wow, these are absolutely beautiful captures!!

  11. Wow!

  12. You took some very stunning photos. Our State Parks are truly wonderful. Starved Rock is one of my very favorite places to be!!!

    • Thanks, Lisa. Agreed–Starved Rock is a terrific place.

  13. I share your real delight in the more subtle beauties here in the Midwest, ready for those of us who have the patience and the inner inspiration to seek them out and honor them.

    • Thanks for weighing in as someone who appreciates the nuances of the Midwest landscape.

  14. Spec.!

    • Thank you very much.

  15. You encourage me to work harder with my camera! Thanks, these are all so wonderful!

    • That’s very kind of you, thanks.

  16. I’ve been wandering around Michigan for 40 years, mostly the lower peninsula for the last 15, and I still find hidden gems that few people know about. I just wish that I had your skill as a photographer to be able to capture their beauty the way that you do!

    • That’s humbling praise, thanks very much.

  17. Well Kerry, you have hit the nail on the head again! It is my belief when a photographer is passionate about creating images that stand out from the rest, “cutting their teeth” as you say, in an area that does not have the dramatic vistas of mountains and lakes and puffy clouds in the backdrop, the photographer will learn to see, and seek out the hidden treasures that are literally everywhere. It is in these places where one will really learn the craft.
    Well done Kerry!!! You have included super photo examples with this post!

    • Thanks very much, David. That means a great deal to me.

  18. love the name of the park and the photos.

    • Thanks. There’s a story–possibly apocryphal, behind the name of Starved Rock State Park. The outline of the story can be read here.

      • thanks for posting that history; surely the natives considered land of such beauty sacred ground. The lighting of the falls and the composition pulls me into the scene and do some exploring of the textured rock on the way to the falls. you have done such a great job of working with the elements and brought out the best in this amazing place.

        • Thanks, Jane.

  19. Great job getting the word out with beautiful “worth a thousand words” photos. I believe that the “driftless area” of SW Wisc, NE Iowa, NW Ill, and SE Minn is the most beautiful place on earth… though now that I’ve moved to NE Wisconsin I am slowly changing my mind!

    • Thanks. Any suggestions about places to shoot, in either of those locations?

      • Lots! Here in the NE our “Wild Rivers” off lots of scenic beauty, from old growth forest to wildlife to waterfalls. In the SW, Wyalusing State Park can’t be beat, or the Kickapoo River, or the vista from most of Crawford County, or the Mississippi between LaCrosse and Prairie du Chien, or the Wisconsin River + bluffs between Lone Rock and Boscobel. The list goes on…

        • Thanks very much for the suggestions. I will add them to my (already long and growing) list of places to check out!

  20. Your observations about the terrain of the Midwest could apply as well to central Texas. Not famous for Scenery with a capital S, and mostly flat on its east side, this region nevertheless has its lesser-known places of rugged natural beauty. There are locations here that could lend themselves to pictures like your #2, 3, 5, 8, and 9. The important thing, as you’ve demonstrated, is to take the time to look.

    Steve Schwartzman

    • Thanks, Steve. One of these springs I hope to get to Texas to photograph the bluebonnet bloom (etc.), and perhaps I can see some of these places you alluded to for myself.

  21. Kerry, great post. I remember spending time in Indiana and exploring all of the covered bridges. Even Iowa has rolling hills, so it doesn’t surprise me that state boundaries include such a marvelous variety of terrain. Of course, you have the eye and the dedication to excellence to capture and do justice to these sights. The cloud reflections in Red Jack Lake are stunning; always a treat for the mind and the eye when you make a post!

    • Thanks very much, Lynn. Re Indiana covered bridges…you must be talking about the (locally) famous Parke County.

  22. It seems your work is testament to the beautiful landscapes that are there, Kerry…incredible shots, as always. I love the first waterfall and the final sunset…stunning.

    • Thanks, Scott!

      • Most welcome, Kerry. 🙂

  23. I can’t stop looking at those pictures! Absolutely breathtaking!

    • Thanks very much, Niki.

  24. Came upon your blog by accident, but loved it so much I subscribed. Your work is beautiful and very inspiring. I look forward to your travels.

    • Very kind of you, thanks so much.

  25. Some beautiful photographjs there. Just like Scotland!

  26. some great images – but enjoy the story telling of the trip which I may get around to myself for a trip I took to Minnesota which I did a while back.

    • Thanks very much, Scott!

  27. Just thought this favorite quote of mine might be apropos:

    Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything. -Charles Kuralt

    • Appropriate indeed. Although, I suppose that without the Interstate system, the roads we take when we actually DO want to see something would be clogged with people who don’t. 🙂

  28. just beautiful pictures!!!

  29. […] I have noted, on this very blog, that having cut my teeth in places such as this, I find myself comfortable at locations where many other photographers do not.  In fact, I often find myself spending time in such spots even when I’m photographing in regions where other, more broadly attractive subjects abound. […]

  30. […] a fascinating, and usually satisfying, adventure. And I’ve always felt that my experience photographing the landscape of the American Midwest has stood me in good stead when, located in other regions, I find myself face-to-face with the […]

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