NORMAL — Sometimes the only evidence a certain rural Illinois barn, corn crib or granary existed is a family’s memory or photograph taken by Alan Cring.
Cring grew up in rural Ohio with an appreciation for rural life. He mixes that with life experiences and education, to tell the stark and beautiful story of the Central Illinois prairie through his photography.
He jokes he was one of the last lads to grow up with an outhouse and one of the first to use new computer switches.
Likewise, in his photographs the old and new often exist comfortably together as the sun glitters off the metal of a new grain bin next to a weathered, wooden structure.
“The prairie teaches us how to live,” he says.
Sometimes, a homestead can be a small part of the stark, winter prairie. “It gives us a sense of how small we are. That we are just a part of the landscape,” Cring said.
His photos may tell the story of a former granary that has been renovated into a modern storage shed. Or, a barn’s style he photographs can reveal the ancestry of the German, Irish or Scottish immigrants who built or designed it.
Some of his photographs include vibrant sunsets; others are almost melancholy, with massive autumn clouds rolling in as the forerunner of winter.
Knowing he is an Illinois State University professor, you might guess he teaches art or agriculture. Not so. His freshman students are business and finance majors.
His photography business, Emergent Light Studio, is a teaching tool and business model for his students. He tells them about perfecting a product, finding markets, using social media and other marketing options. This approach also shows students they can have both business and artistic sides, he notes.
“It’s a wonderful relief to the madness here some days. I can go out to a quiet field. It’s not just therapy; it's survival,” he says with a smile.
But, sometimes the dangers are outside in the peaceful prairie too, which he has learned from walking on the snow-covered fields. Cring once stumbled onto a barbed-wire fence hidden by snow in one of his adventures.
Some of his photographs make people angry, he said. While he sees beauty in the new landscape cut by the stark, white wind turbines, others bluntly tell him they see no beauty there. For Cring, the turbines harvest the wind as farmers harvest crops. However, he is pleased ISU researchers and others are looking for ways the turbines can coexist with nature better and not threaten bat and bird populations.
Cring’s photography also captures other changing practices of farmers. He sees the no-till stubble replacing traditional plowing in many fields. That pleases him because he likes the textures reflected in the light and how the practice improves soil and is good for the environment.
“The prairie started out mean,” he says. Years elapsed from the time women carved small gardens from the tough prairie grass when men were out gathering food, until orderly fields and farmsteads grew, he observes.
He often has his camera in his hands while thinking, then takes a few steps back before snapping the bigger picture.
With all the thought that goes into each photograph, he is aware some people choose a photograph mostly to suit their home decor.
A case in point, he provided close up photographs of flowers for a Bloomington-Normal remodeling and décor company. He looked through the model rooms seeking out the flowers he photographed. “There, they were in the toilet room. And, they looked good there. Hmm. I take toilet photography,” he says with a humble grin.
Still, his photographs are authentic prairie scenery. He never adds anything into a photo. However, he says he might remove litter from the landscape. When working with a photo, he was prepared to take a small pile of garbage out of the picture, and on closer examination, he realized the “lump” was a cat. It had been staring at him as he took the photos. He left it in.
If the photos themselves aren’t emotion-evoking enough, the titles Cring gives each photo further helps reveal the prairie’s story. Titles such as: “When I Saw Yesterday”; “Eerie Glow of a Gathering Storm”; or “The Angry Child, The Prairie Spring” reflect what he sees and feels.
“Heading Home and Sunset” gives a viewer comfort and “Without a Sound, Sunset Takes My Breath Away” does exactly that to someone seeing the photo.
However, there are no written words, photo titles or stories in his two volumes of “Emergent Light Studio: Landscapes.”
A few words on the jacket cover, give a viewer a little insight: “This is the American prairie: our homes, our lives, our stories.”