Alanna Styer MFA EDA ’20: “A Prairie, Not A Promise”

Photo of Alanna Styer by Sam Angel.

Alanna Styer left the Midwest when she was eighteen, but she revisits home in A Prairie, Not A Promise, her MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts thesis exhibition. The project includes a gallery exhibit of her photography (mostly shot on medium format film), a short film, and (eventually) a book. It was set to open at Duke’s Power Plant Gallery in downtown, Durham, NC, and Styer’s film by the same name was due to premiere at the Full Frame Theater in April. (All MFA EDA thesis exhibitions are now postponed to Fall 2020.)

A Prairie, Not A Promise was born out of a conversation I had with a friend from Iowa. We were trying to define ‘Midwest culture’ and realized neither of us could put a finger on it,” said Styer. “I wanted to relearn, figure out, and share this culture that I grew up in.”

Styer grew up in St Louis, MO, and left to earn her BFA in photography at Watkins College of Art in Nashville, TN. After graduating in 2015, a planned posting with Teach for America took her to Oakland, CA, where she worked in the hospitality industry and managed a restaurant. Her film photography slowed down (“It’s ridiculously expensive to get your film scanned!”), but her artistic practice and interest in teaching persisted. In 2018, she came to Duke for the MFA EDA program. “I wanted the time and structure to do work, and I wanted to earn the credentials to teach college.”

“I wanted to relearn, figure out, and share this culture that I grew up in.”
—Alanna Styer

Towards the end of her second semester, in April 2019, Styer began to relearn the Midwest. She started with the familiar—personal histories (the family farm in Menomonie, WI, now run by Styer’s uncles) and regional landmarks (preserved covered wagon wheel ruts, the geographical center of the US in Lebanon, KS). She meandered between sites like this, stopping to make photographs along the way. Her photos chronicle the human mark on the landscape, from American Indian earth mounds to oversized industrial farming facilities. “I started to search for places like that where you could see this transition of history,” she explained.

“Half of these crops have been tilled and the other half are just growing wheat. A lot of people [who see this] have told me that they’re burnt crops on the right. It’s fresh dirt.” Photo by Alanna Styer.

In the title, “Prairie” references settlers moving westward, cultivating the open land, and agriculture. “You can still get to a farm within thirty or forty-five minutes no matter where you are,” said Styer. “I grew up in St Louis, about a mile from the Anheuser Busch brewery. I have a strong memory and association with the smell of hops brewing and boiling.”

“When people say ‘middle America,’ or the ‘heartland,’ they’re not only imagining geography, but also an ideal of middle class whiteness, of agrarian life,” says Styer. “Not a Promise” undercuts this heartland myth by underscoring it is not accessible to everyone.

Multiple road trips to county fairs, family gatherings and holidays culminate to reveal the tension of living in the middle. A Prairie, Not A Promise documents the lingering effects of the pastoral dream and industrial boom in the Midwest. This year long journey traces the edge of the Heartland myth juxtaposing the idealized promise land against the reality that, for many, it never existed.

“Geography and religion and patriotism all kind of collide in the Midwest, both through media representation and self-identification.” Photo by Alanna Styer.
This photo of the Serpent Mound historical landmark in Ohio is the only photo in the show shot on 4×5 Provia (Fuji) film.
“Corporate agriculture is taking over the Midwest.” Photo by Alanna Styer.

The installation at the Power Plant Gallery includes a kitchen table, and visitors would have heard the sound of Styer’s aunt and some twelve friends swapping definitions of the Midwest. (One offered: “You pay your bills, nobody bails you out, and you save for a rainy day.”) Styer was planning to stage a few friends playing euchre, a regional card came, at this table on opening night. When I asked her if she feels like she was able to capture the Midwest, she replied “It’s hard to say, I didn’t have the larger viewing audience of the opening to know that, sadly.”

It is much quieter to encounter Styer’s photographs individually, on your screen, alone. Still, you will know the Midwest, and its myths of Americanness, a little better after seeing her work.

For Styer, this way of relearning home through film is ongoing. And it has its joys.

“I feel most at peace driving country roads between farms. Most likely with my windows down, in the middle of summer. That is one of the greatest feelings for me.”

Alanna Styer’s Website