Midwestern Gothic staffer Ben Ratner spoke with photographer Sera Hayes about her creative process, the intersection of photography and literature, and more.
Sera Hayes was born and raised in the Midwest and graduated from Knox College in Galesburg, IL. She’s worked in the publishing and tech industries in Chicago and actively practices photography. Sera is available for freelance photography work and open to collaboration. http://serahayes.format.com/ Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sera Hayes: I was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, attended Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and I’ve resided in Chicago for the last nine years. I’ve traveled to many different parts of the country but I’ve always thought of the Midwest region as “home”.
BR: What launched you into the world of photography?
SH: I’ve been interested in and actively practicing photography since high school when I first started experimenting with digital and Polaroid cameras. I’m drawn to film and visual art, but I’m not skilled at drawing or painting. Photography as a medium has always been an accessible and intuitive creative outlet for me. It feels like second nature at this point because it’s been essential to the way I process the world and my experiences for most of my life.
BR: What do you think photography as a medium can add to the literary profile of the Midwest?
SH: I won’t pretend to be an expert on the literary profile of the Midwest, but I can speak from personal experience with Midwestern literature as someone who has roots in the Midwest (and a sense of its insecurities). I think there are a lot of misconceptions about the Midwest in general. It’s a region that sometimes feels overlooked by the rest of the country and the world in terms of interest/desirability. The landscape, though varied, doesn’t appear as dramatic at first glance here as it does in the East, West, Southwest, etc. I think the best writing about the Midwest exposes the subtle beauty in what might have been previously dismissed or overlooked–giving depth to a specific place and the people who live there. Photographs of the Midwest have their own way of telling these stories and can also express this sense of place and symbolism.
BR: If there is a common subject that runs throughout your work, it’s small-town America. What is it about this part of the country that captivates you so?
SH: When I was growing up, my family was a road trip family. I have memories of pulling off of the highway on the way to our destination to visit a diner, a historical marker, or a roadside attraction. I also lived in Galesburg, Illinois for four years in my early 20s and experienced living in a small town in a way that I hadn’t before. Small-town America visually resonates with me, partially because of these life experiences but also because it tends to be an aesthetic, thematic microcosm of bygone American eras. The manufacturing history, pastoral scenes, faded hints of a flawed American Dream through sometimes crumbling infrastructure–cracks in the foundation of capitalism. The kindness, strength, and optimism that can be found in people in spite of disenfranchisement, economic struggle, or personal tragedy. These things clearly aren’t isolated to these areas, but I get a raw sense of that history here and its connection to our present.
BR: I’ve noticed that neon signs are a recurring theme in your photography. Most of the time, however, they are unlit. Can you describe your intention behind this creative choice?
SH: I do have a bit of a vintage neon sign obsession. Re: lit vs. unlit, in all honesty sometimes it’s less of a specific choice and more a matter of the time of day that I’ve encountered something I want to photograph. I’m sometimes traveling by myself when I’m photographing these signs and many of them are in disrepair—they’re attached to old motels, etc. in areas unfamiliar to me in terms of safety. So I usually err on the side of caution (particularly as a woman) when I’m photographing things alone at night. However there are times when I specifically know I want to photograph a particular sign at a certain time. Time of day can completely change the mood in a photograph of a neon sign. If I want to capture a quiet, eerie, mysterious nighttime mood, I make that specific choice. If I want to show the weathered colors/bones of a sign as a signal of time passed, daylight works best for me.
BR: We have a few of your photos here that are new to the MG site. Can you take us through your creative process? How did you come across each moment and why did you feel the need to capture it?
SH: Choosing what I’m going to capture is pretty intuitive for me, so I don’t really have an extensive creative process. I typically have some type of camera with me at all times and I tend to seek out places that I know I’ll find visually interesting. For these moments specifically:
This is a diner in a small town in Illinois I stumbled across. It was meant to be somewhat Vegas-themed but there was also a hodge-podge of random nostalgic Americana/Hollywood imagery—Elvis, Batman, Frank Sinatra, I Love Lucy, etc. I noticed this group of people having breakfast together. I wondered about their stories and how they came together for the meal—perhaps they live in the town, maybe they were just passing through, maybe they’re related. I liked the contrast of this very real human scene with the cartoony, garish nostalgia surrounding them.
This is a camera/photography store in downtown Chicago that was founded in 1899. I’ve always loved the sign and the fact that it’s stood the test of time–with modern skyscrapers built just around the corner. I’ve heard that it was frequented by Vivian Maier. I specifically intended to take a photo of the sign itself, since I’ve always admired it, but wanted another level of visual interest in the scene. So this is a case where the “decisive moment” came into play for me, since I waited for multiple people to walk by before deciding to capture a person walking their dog. I wanted it to evoke the street level bustle and activity this camera shop has seen over the years.
Sometimes I choose one specific location and challenge myself to take photos that represent a sense of the place. This is one from a series of photos I took at an old bowling alley in the middle of the day. It was almost completely empty. I captured this moment because I liked the juxtaposition of the “Service Desk” lettering with the pose of the person standing below it. There’s also a hand-written “CASH ONLY” sign on the register juxtaposed with the cell phone being held, offering just a hint of modern technology. I love that back wall because it offers so many signifiers of time and place.
BR: Is there a Midwestern author that speaks to your soul?
SH: Most recently: Peter Orner, Chad Simpson, and Toni Morrison.
BR: What’s next for you?
SH: I look forward to working on personal photography projects and continuing to capture the Midwest.
Our Views from the Heartland series is a new series we started to give some recognition to the incredible photographers who submit their photos to us regularly. In it, we talk with some of our favorite photographers who we feel capture the essence of the Midwest in their incredible photos. Each month, we’ll post a new interview with a photographer in which we discuss their creative process, the intersection of photography and literature, and other fascinating topics.