After living on a farm in Lockport, Illinois, for seventy-three years, Harlow Cagwin sold his family land to a subdivision developer. Shortly thereafter, Amanda Grabenhofer and her family settled into a newly built home upon the land that once housed the Cagwins’ cattle. Together, the stories of these families are the subject of Scott Strazzante’s fifteen-year photography project, Common Ground, in which the juxtaposition of photographs reveals differences, complexities, and similarities between farm life and suburbia life. In this interview, Strazzante provides background to his project and explores the unexpected symmetries in the transformation of land and culture.
The Other Journal (TOJ): Where and how did this project originate?
Scott Strazzante (SS): In May, 1994, I was a staff photographer at the Daily Southtown, a fifty-thousand-person circulation newspaper that covered Chicago and its south suburbs. I was given an assignment to photograph four people who raised animals in Homer Township, a then mostly rural area thirty-five miles southwest of Chicago. I photographed a man who raised wolves for educational purposes, a couple who tended llamas, a horse rancher, and a senior-citizen husband and wife team who had a herd of Angus beef cattle.
Over the next week, I spent an hour or two at each place. Of the four, I enjoyed my afternoon with the cattle farmers, Harlow and Jean Cagwin, the most—being a city boy, I loved the uncomplicated nature of the farm. As I left the farm, I casually asked the Cagwins if I could return one day to photograph some more. I wasn’t sure at the time if I would ever return, but I was pleased that the Cagwins said yes.
TOJ: Did you have a specific objective in documenting this couple?
SS: On my first visit, I was just looking to make two or three interesting images of the Cagwins daily life so that I wouldn’t have to do a portrait, which in my experience is the approach that most newspaper editors unfortunately prefer.
TOJ: Could you first briefly tell me about the Cagwins?
SS: When I first met the Cagwins, Harlow was seventy-one and Jean was sixty-two. Harlow was born on a farm and then at the age of six moved with his family to another farm less than two miles away. Harlow’s father got sick when Harlow was young, and he ended up taking over the farm in his teens. As an adult, Harlow worked a full-time job driving a forklift at a nearby Caterpillar plant while farming at night. Then in his early sixties, Harlow retired from Caterpillar and started raising cattle on a full-time basis. Harlow lived and worked on this farm until he was almost eighty.
Jean was raised in the nearby town of Lockport, and she married Harlow when she was thirty-five. At that point, she moved on to Harlow’s farm. The Cagwins never had any children. By time I met him, Harlow was hard of hearing, so the majority of his conversations with Jean were of the shouting variety. They had a very business-like relationship. They each knew each other’s responsibilities, and they usually went about their day with little interaction. There wasn’t much romance left in their marriage, but they definitely were a team.
TOJ: How did your relationship with the Harlows develop over the years?
SS: After my first visit, I returned to the farm a couple weeks later. Over the next four years, I made sporadic visits to the farm and actually didn’t do much shooting. Whenever I would show up, Harlow and Jean would take a break, and I would end up chatting with them at their kitchen table, munching on Swedish desserts that Jean would serve up.
When my children were born in the 1990s, I brought them to the farm to see the cows and play with the farm cats. Then in 1999, I left the Daily Southtown and took a staff position at the Herald News, a newspaper that had a commitment to photojournalism and expected their photographers to generate stories. When I was asked if I had any story ideas, I mentioned the Cagwins. On my next visit, I explained to Harlow and Jean that I wanted to do another story on their lives. Once again they said yes. The problem was that whenever I would visit, Jean would instinctively stop working and head to the kitchen. I had to stop her and say that I wanted her to just go about her day as if I wasn’t there.
After that, I began photographing on the farm on a weekly basis. In late 2001, I was hired at the Chicago Tribune and the Cagwin story had a new place to be published. On July 2, 2002, the Cagwins sold their farm and left for good, and the first half of the tale had been told.
When the Cagwins left their farm, as the Willow Walk subdivision was being built, I decided that some day I would continue the story but not on the Cagwins, who had moved to another farm seventy miles south, but on the Cagwin land and its new inhabitants.
In 2001, while the Cagwins were still on the farm, I was named National Newspaper Photographer of the Year for a portfolio that contained, among other things, a story on the Cagwins. I began to make speeches and attend workshops around the country, and at each stop, I would show my work on the Cagwin farm, telling audiences that one day I hoped to return to the land and find another family to document as a bookend to Harlow and Jean. But 2002 became 2004, and 2004 became 2006, and I started to think that I would never return to finish the project.
In March 2007, I was invited to speak to a photo-story class at the College of DuPage in west suburban Chicago. As a finale, I showed a fifty-photo edit of my farm story. By this time, I was used to the lights coming up as audience members were wiping tears from their cheeks. The same thing happened on that afternoon, but what also happened was that a woman raised her hand and said, “I think that I live in that subdivision.” That woman was Amanda Grabenhofer.
After years and years of trying to find a family in the subdivision, the subdivision had found me.
I immediately responded by asking if I could come photograph at her home. A week later, I was at the end of a cul-de-sac on Cinnamon Court in the Willow Walk subdivision getting ready to photograph a block-long Easter egg hunt.
The whole neighborhood was great, but the Grabenhofers were particularly awesome. Not only did they live at the end of that very suburban cul-de-sac, but Amanda and her husband Ed had four children, three of which were triplets, and two dogs, one of which looked like a black Angus calf.
On my second visit, I photographed Amanda and Ed’s oldest son Ben as he wrestled with his cousin CJ in the front yard. Somehow, a jump rope got wrapped around Ben as they rolled on the grass. The scene reminded me of a time when Harlow Cagwin wrestled with a calf in a farm field. When I returned home that night, I played around and decided to make a diptych of the two photos. Voilà! A project was born.
I then scanned through my old farm photos and my first two takes from the subdivision and made three other pairings. The story came together so much quicker than I could have ever imagined. In February 2007, I hadn’t even met the Grabenhofers. In February 2008, an excerpt of the project was published in National Geographic. Craziness!
TOJ: The juxtaposition of the Cagwin family with the Grabenhofer family denotes visual similarities, yet the photos imply vastly different lifestyle contexts. Could you expound upon this?
SS: The project developed very organically. I don’t have much forethought to why I shoot certain things, and I don’t try to shoot specifically to match past farm photos, but the echoes of the past seem to pop up over and over again. I am a very instinctual photographer and 99 percent of the meaning that I attach to my images happens well after I push the shutter button. The same thing happened with this project. After I shoot at the subdivision, I edit a group of twenty or so of my favorite photos and then I start to look for matches. Sometimes these matches are very basic, perhaps using composition or the mechanisms of daily life to carry the matches, but on the very good matches, it goes much deeper than that. My only rule is that both halves of the diptychs should be good enough to stand alone as compelling images.
TOJ: How intentional were you when taking the photographs of the Grabenhofer family, especially in light of the last several years documenting the Cagwins?
SS: There have only been two instances where I intentionally shot to match farm photos. One obvious one is the pair of aerials. I had a photo shot from a plane of the farm and then I shot the subdivision in 2007 from a helicopter. I also had one image I liked that I shot from a second floor window in the Cagwin farmhouse. After I came upon that photo, on my next visit to the subdivision, I went up to Ben’s bedroom and shot out while Amanda mowed the lawn.
There are a lot of instances when a scene starts to develop that stirs a memory, and I will try to match that memory.
TOJ: Did the juxtaposition also appear to be an unveiling of narrative semiotics? That is, Harlow working on the toy tractor, the Grabenhofers’ son wearing a t-shirt with a tractor on it; working the land, working the landscape; vast open space, a small confined sandbox, et cetera? More or less, did the Grabenhofers’ unknowingly resemble and point back to parts of the Cagwins’ past?
SS: It is almost unbelievable the amount of similarities in suburban life that mirror farm life. It is possible that I could find many of the same similarities in a Chicago high-rise community, but this project definitely has been blessed by the photo gods.
I was stunned when I showed up one day and Aiden was wearing the tractor shirt. It was too perfect.
TOJ: What was it like watching the Cagwins leave their toiled, nourished land (and livelihood) behind as it was apprehended by those who would capitalize on it?
SS: It was extremely sad. That farm was Harlow’s life for almost his entire life. He knew nothing else. I think that he left almost all of his identity and a good chunk of his soul behind when he left that land.
As the Cagwins started the process of leaving their farm, scores of people came by, almost like an extended wake. Each and every one of their friends and visitors wished that they wouldn’t leave.
On the other hand, Harlow and Jean worked their asses off on that farm, and they were rewarded handsomely for their efforts. It was nice to see them in a brand new house and not to have to go through another winter where the wind blew through the walls.
TOJ: As I’ve sat with the photos, I noticed an emptying or uprooting of an old Americana legacy to a fulfillment of the more recent American Dream—from tactile, organic, hands-on experiences to a manufactured, formatted, and somewhat generic lifestyle. Was it hard not to, for lack of better words, demonize suburbia?
SS: It has been very difficult to avoid taking cheap shots, although I have probably stooped down to that level once or twice. I do want to be very clear that this isn’t an anti-suburban rant. I hope that the project leaves viewers in a space to make their own conclusions.
TOJ: For me, I struggled to see the beauty in the Grabenhofers’ world, particularly due to the economy and how the collapse of it has been, in part, caused by the ambitious, demanding American dream. How was it for you then and how is it for you now?
SS: As a photographer, I love the mundane and I adore irony. Suburban life is rich in both.
Last year, Ed Grabenhofer was laid off from his job, and I selfishly thought, “Wow! What if the Grabenhofers lost their house due to foreclosure and they had to move out just like the Cagwins moved out. What incredible symmetry that would be!”
But I love the Grabenhofers, so I felt really bad about thinking that, although I have openly joked with Ed about my initial reaction. He doesn’t find it quite as ironic as I do.
TOJ: The emotional content—tragedy, loss, devastation, unconscious anger, renewal, expectancy—of these photos is heightened by the futility and ephemerality of both worlds—would you agree? If yes, why document these troubling things? If not, what was the emotional content you intended?
SS: Above all, I consider my project to be a historical document. An unabashed view of everyday life that many photographers think is not glamorous enough to document. I hope that the work shows the small dramas of daily life that we all face but are rarely frozen and held up for examination. This is more real than anything that I have ever photographed and probably ever will.
On an emotional level, I want people to examine their own lives and prioritize what really is important. Society in general works very hard at perfecting perception but not reality. As long as our lives look good from the outside, it doesn’t really matter what really is going on behind closed doors. That is what is truly sad.