Midwestern Gothic staffer Sydney Cohen spoke with photographer Dawn Olsen about her creative process, how her Midwestern roots affect her work, the nostalgia of stillness, and more.
Dawn Olson is an Oxford comma defender by trade and Iowan by birth. She has lived in Indianapolis since 2012 and serves on the board of two preservation-based organizations. She had never heard of sugar cream pie before moving to Indiana, and refuses to call the Sears Tower anything but “the Sears Tower.” Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.
Dawn Olsen: I’m a Midwesterner through and through. I was born in southwest Iowa (near Omaha, Nebraska), and have lived in Indianapolis since 2012. Since my boyfriend lives and works in Chicago, I often find myself in the City of Broad Shoulders, too. This part of the country will always be home; it made me, shaped me, embraced me.
SC: What launched you into the world of photography?
DO: My dad used to be a photographer for a small-town newspaper, and I grew up around his equipment — he used to keep various lenses on the dashboard of his car. I remember being in the darkroom with him too, long ago. I was five, maybe six, and when I went to open the door, he stopped me — I hadn’t yet learned that light spoils a candid moment. At the time, I wanted to be a zookeeper, and the thought of being a writer or photographer was foreign to me. However, weekends at the newspaper exposed me to words, images, and information at an early age.
SC: Your featured work on Midwestern Gothic is both gritty and captivating. How would you describe your personal aesthetic?
DO: The subjects in my photos vary depending on my mood, the time of year, and where I’m at. But there is one thing my images have in common — honesty. I’m interested in capturing a place, person, or object as it truly is at that moment. I want the late-evening sun at the Indiana State Fair, the gritty underbelly of Chicago, the hint of a smile, and the smear of mud on an abandoned couch.
SC: What does your photography tell about the physical and cultural landscape of the Midwest?
DO: Midwesterners are known for being helpful and hard-working, and are often described as “traditional.” That doesn’t mean we’re boring, however. There are always places to explore, and I try to showcase them in my photography. Dirt roads, rolling hills, and small town life are just as visually interesting as rooftop bars and West Coast beaches.
SC: Your work captures moments of stillness, seen in photos like “Mowing Hazard” and “A Functioning John Updike Story”. What interests you in the absence of motion, or the suspension of time? Is there something particularly Midwestern about this calm and unsettling stillness?
DO: I don’t find it unsettling; I find it nostalgic. One of my favorite sounds is the orchestra of crickets during the summer, who play nightly symphonies. It is then, in the pinks and yellows of dusk, that everything else falls still. If I were to move back to Iowa today — six years after I left — the crickets would sound the same. I, however, would be a different. Sometimes, my photographs are the same; they capture something that is, has been, and always will be a certain way.
SC: How do you come across your shots — are they random, or do you go searching for them?
DO: Both! If I’m in Indianapolis, Chicago, or Omaha, I photograph whatever or whomever I happen to be around. However, I have been known to map out road trips and explore rural Iowa and Indiana.
SC: What would be your dream project to work on? Something you would love to capture through the medium of photography?
DO: There are a few things I would like to do. First, I’d like to start taking more photos of my family — my parents, my brother, my nephew. Candid photos of who they are and what they do, because I don’t ever want to forget. I’d also like to do something for/of my hometown, Treynor, Iowa. When I was small, it had a grocery store, a pharmacy, a hardware store. Things have changed since then, and I’d love to create a photographic timeline that shows the transformation of our 900-person town. As for a big-picture project? I would love to document an Amtrak trip from Wisconsin to Arizona — it would be a trip that captures a nostalgic form of travel, and allows me to explore my genealogy. (My mother and grandmother were born in Racine, and my biological grandfather is buried in Arizona.)