Rising Photographers

The photographer documenting Missouri’s changing landscape

'Mother of the West' not only celebrates the beauty of midwest America's rolling countryside but highlights and documents how mankind has altered the layout of nature itself.

Although Mitchell Hurst is young in his photography career, his approach to photos and to the subjects he captures are incredibly mature. Throughout his work there is such a strong sense of consideration and development that the photos feel more like timeless works of art, Mother of the West is no exception.

There is little presence of humans or a narrative in Mother of the West, instead of foretelling a story, Hurst’s work captures the pure essence of the land and of the wildlife that lives co-exists alongside it. It reflects a way of life that people follow in the midwest and how its landscape is at the heart of it.

Over his oeuvre, Hurst focuses on nature and land surrounding the state of Missouri, where he lives. In Mother of the West, Hurst investigates the rich history of these areas and its everlasting effect on the terrain; from caves dugout to be used as bunkers during the civil war, how the near extinction of beavers altered rivers and wetlands, to the present day, where small towns and family farms are falling victim to industrial farming. Mother of the West not only celebrates the ripe landscape but highlights and documents how mankind has changed the layout of nature itself.

The rapid expansion of industrial farming has ravaged rural communities in the midwest, farmhouses where generation after generation lived now lie empty. Independent cattle farmers in Missouri have fallen 40% in the last thirty years. Midwest’s nature faces a deeper threat, climate change has the potential to change our landscapes so much so that we can’t comprehend it. Hurst captures this fragile stability and beauty in Mother of the West, the viewer is in awe of the misty landscapes but also anxious for the unknown future.

Scroll down to read our interview with Hurst.

Could you give me a brief background about yourself and where you’re from?

I grew up in Illinois. I moved to Missouri for school because it was close, and I have family here. I studied photography at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Missouri quickly became the place I wanted to call home after I fell in love with the landscape of the state. This led me to the making of ‘Mother of the West’ born from my admiration and desire to learn more about the land.

The first time you picked up a camera and when did you start taking photos?

I took a 35mm photography course in high school. My friend’s dad loaned me his Minolta srt101. I knew nothing about photography prior to that, but it didn’t take long for me to connect with the analogue process. The darkroom became a retreat for me, and I spent as much time in there as I could.

What drew you to start photographing your surroundings?

The state of the environment and global warming was very heavily on my mind when I began taking photography seriously, so I wanted to try to work that into my process. I didn’t have a car, so I was either walking everywhere or riding my bike, being in a college town everywhere you look there is trash, debris and detritus. Photographing this rubble became really influential in the way I see things now. At the time though it was just a good way to process the feelings I had about what I was focused on looking at every day.

Your worst and favourite place to photograph?

I’ve done a couple of road trips west to make pictures, but I never came back with anything I am particularly interested in. The trips themselves were great, but I just didn’t make compelling images. I realized I wasn’t truly inspired by the landscape and the images I was trying to make. Reflecting on that fact was what inspired me to make something about the Midwest. These rural landscapes have been a joy for me to navigate and photograph over the years. I love winding through gravel roads driving alongside Missouri’s lakes and rivers.

Three photographers, who have shaped your practice?

Diane Arbus’ portraits would completely enthral me. Even though I did nothing like she did looking at her work truly made me want to be a photographer. Some images being less considered than others combined with the variety of subjects she was interested in hit just the right note for me. Someone else I think about rather consistently is Stacy Kranitz. My connection to her work is in her affection and appreciation for the land and its people that she photographs. In 2016 I was lucky to be able to see her speak at True False film festival in Columbia, Missouri. The way she spoke about her work, but more importantly how much she cares about who and what she photographs has always stuck with me. I really admire her ability to connect with people for long periods of time while she makes her work. Last but not least Tim Davis comes to mind. When I first saw his Office work I was comforted by the way he noticed the ephemeral and oddities of being in the same place day in and day out. Ultimately his work helped me understand better my urge to photograph and why I was so connected to it. In his description of the Office work he described photography as a way of generating meaning and a method of survival. I didn’t really know it before that, but that’s exactly what I was feeling at the time.

What does Mid-West America mean to you?

I grew up in a rural area in Illinois. My neighbour grew corn, and Illinois is one of the largest producers of corn in the country. Seeing those stalks come up from seed, turn dark green, then cut down represents the passage of summer to me. When I see the mature corn in August I think about the farmers livelihood and how hard they worked for the harvest that summer. I moved to Missouri for college and the landscape seemed pretty familiar to me. The more I explored the state I realized how much more it had to offer in its landscape, while still feeling very much like the place I grew up. The Mid-West just feels like home to me. I’ve considered moving many times, but I think I would miss it too much.

Why are there no or very little presence of humans in this series?

I wanted to depict what the people of rural Missouri are like through the landscape that they mold themselves. I also want the viewer to imagine these scenes back and forth through time as they began and as they changed.

How has large scale farming affected the landscape?

It forces the family farms producing livestock to be sold to feedlots. While small farms have a balanced ecosystem between its animals and the land, feedlots overwhelm the land with the byproducts it takes to produce livestock. The lots are detrimental to soil makeup, and water wells that people in rural areas rely on.

Your photos document how human involvement changes the environment, what do you think Mid-West America will look like in thirty years?

I really hope the little guys will be able to pull through. It’s sort of tough to see though with the amount of power in the food industry. If we can preserve some of these small towns through a boom in local farming not only will people benefit but the land will too.

Any exciting projects coming up?

I live in St.louis now. I’m excited to make work in the city. I want to relate this new scenery that I’m experiencing to my many days spent travelling open spaces of rural Missouri.

23 July 2019