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Between last Christmas and New Year’s Eve, Bruce Myren set out from his Cambridge home to photograph the last of his series documenting the 40th parallel as it crosses the United States from the New Jersey shore to the coast of northern California.
“I didn’t have any winter pictures. I was hoping for a little snow. I had a ton of snow,” the 48-year-old tells me of his final trip, which took him to the Midwest. “The last picture was taken on December 29 in a snowstorm in Green, Indiana, which is a tiny little farming community. … It was in the middle of a field and snowing like the dickens. It was intense. I was alone. I was alone for the first picture in New Jersey in 1998. … So it was kind of fitting that I was alone for the last one.”
For 14 years, when he could find the time, he’d traveled across the country documenting the intersections of each longitudinal line and the 40th line of latitude. The final 20 shots, beginning in July last year, were supported by $17,860 he raised on Kickstarter plus another $600 collected outside the fundraising website.
“It didn’t quite hit me until I had all the proofs done” about a month ago, he says. “Holding the 52 pictures in my hands was kind of amazing. I was looking at it and thinking ‘I actually did do it.’ … I’m not sure how it feels yet. Part of me feels this new sense of confidence. I set out to accomplish something and I did.”
Two things drive most of Myren’s projects—location and guidelines that he sets up for himself. “I can’t just walk around and make art,” Myren says. “I want to make these rules.”
For his “The View Home” series, he photographed 14 places where he had lived in Massachusetts with the camera looking toward his present home. For his “Markers: Memory” series, he returned to Amherst, where he moved from Marshfield when he was 7 and lived until he went to study photography at Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston in the late 1980s. He photographed locales associated “with certain keen childhood memories.” Captions include: “We buried Playboys and cigarettes where nobody would find them,” “We kissed on a dare, pretending it was the first time,” “In the last game of the season, I got my first and only hit.”
“All my work is related to place and where I am,” Myren says. “But it came from my dad showing me, when I was 5 years old, the latitude line in Kingston, Mass.” The memory of that invisible line running around the whole planet fired his imagination.
Myren has described "The Fortieth Parallel” project as “a panoramic examination of precise yet arbitrary places found along this important parallel of latitude across the American landscape.” While the placement of the line itself may be arbitrary, it’s had consequences for the land it runs across.
Myren’s path retraces some of the route photographer Timothy O’Sullivan traveled as part of an 1860s U.S. government sponsored survey of territory from Wyoming to California, a survey that helped lay the groundwork for opening more of the West to American development and driving out native peoples.
“I care about where I am. And I care about how we as humans locate ourselves in the world. This is a completely man-made thing,” he says of longitude. “It’s not completely—it’s based on the sun, on the spinning of the earth. We’ve made this to understand the world. And we don’t really understand it. … I’m fascinated by this line and this imaginary grid system.”
In this project, Myren’s self-imposed rules required him to photograph triptychs (“It’s about my peripheral vision,” he says) within 20 square feet of each crossing of longitude and the 40th parallel. Often photographers who give themselves such strict conceptual rules aren’t aiming for traditional beauty. In fact, the rules are usually meant to force themselves to get outside their usual ways of seeing and to produce photos that aren’t conventionally composed.
But Myren says, “I try to make the most beautiful picture I can based on the time I get there and what’s going on in that space.”
Along the 40th parallel, each line of longitude is 53 miles apart as the crow flies. But Myren had to drive it and hike it. “There were times when I was driving for four hours on a dirt road,” he says. “It could take a whole day to get from one to another.”
Then he’d lug his bulky, old-fashioned Deardorff view camera and its 8x10-inch film out into forests or deserts or farm fields. The results are a sort of cross-section of the American landscape, from Shelter Cove, California, into wooded mountains, across dry Utah scrub. Storms brew on the horizon. High-tension wires sweep across plains. Lines of plowed Kansas fields run straight to the edge of the world. Cows graze in Illinois snow.
The land runs mountainous then flat. Around Ohio, you find residential neighborhoods and a church. The land gets hilly and turns into green wooded Pennsylvania. The end at Normandy Beach, New Jersey, which of course was actually Myren’s beginning, feels like a relief. You can almost feel the moisture of the wide Atlantic Ocean on your skin after all the dry of the country’s interior.
“In some way it really is acting as a new survey of America. … What I learned about America is that most things didn’t change much, that most of the country is still rural,” Myren says. “Between the East Coast and the Mississippi River, in only four of the pictures are there what we understand as human presence.”
In the parched hills of Doyle, California, “I almost got bit by a rattlesnake. It was about a foot and a half from my leg. I got really scared and nervous,” he says. In July 2012, he hiked alone into California’s Mendocino National Forest “where I didn’t think anybody has really stood before, maybe one or two people. That one I ran out of water, I ran out of food. … I got my GPS kind of screwed up. I thought I was going to die. I was passing out on the trail.”
He says, “I realized I’m a photographer. I’m not an outdoor adventurer.”
“There are places I know I want to go back to,” he adds. “I always wanted to do a road trip. … Not being on the interstate and being only on back roads and state highways for days and days … it changes the way you see the world.”
This program aired on April 3, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.
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