A transplant from Chicago learns to appreciate the subtle beauty of the Kansas landscape.
By Jan Biles
Journal-World Arts Editor
James Nedresky has fallen in love with the Flint Hills and its 8,600-acre Konza Prairie. It's a love that has grown with every trek he has made to the rolling hills and native bluestem prairie to take photographs of its changing terrain.
His photographs capture the charred patterns of controlled burns, spring's brilliant green-and-pink milkweed, the brown and orange grasses of autumn and a grove of barren stalks poking through the untrodden snow.
Nedresky, a free-lance photographer who moved to Lawrence from Chicago in 1993, first heard about the Kansas prairie from Andy Driscoll, one of his clients in the Windy City. Driscoll is known for his landscape paintings of the Flint Hills, and Nedresky was hired to take photographs of his artwork for documentary purposes.
"I asked him why there were no trees in his paintings and he explained it to me," he said. "I heard also about prairie burnings and why they do it ... and why it's beneficial to do."
So when Nedresky's wife, Marvel Maring, was offered a position at Kansas University and they decided to move to Lawrence, he found himself thinking about the Flint Hills.
"It gave me pause because what would I do in a small locale?" he said, remembering his apprehensions about the move. "I had to rebuild by photography business and I had unoccupied hours to take a look around. ... My curiosity made me real quickly want to see the area called the Flint Hills. I drove out and said, `Is this it?' It's kind of like a big endless field. ... But it was so beautiful in a subtle way."
Unlike other locales that draw thousands of photographers each year, such as the Rocky Mountains or the great forests of the Pacific Northwest, Nedresky said he enjoyed the sense that he was the only one "working the area."
"It was one of those things that leave me with a feeling that this is a very special place, but it's hard to define and put it into terms about what makes it special. It just feels it. I mean I'm living 75 miles east of the last virgin tallgrass prairie."
So Nedresky began looking at the Flint Hills and its Konza Prairie as a long-term photographic project. He began seeking out contacts who could get him access to the vast prairie land. He eventually made a proposal to the director of the Konza Prairie Research Natural Area that would let him to get closer to his subject.
"It allowed me to get in and check out a very representative area of the tallgrass prairie that remains unchanged since the settlers," he said.
The Konza Prairie is part of a biological research area purchased by the Nature Conservancy with funds by Katharine Ordway that is managed and maintained by Kansas State University's division of biology.
The first thing Nedresky wanted to do was document a controlled burn "because it was so visual and such a process." The project then broadened to fit his developing interests and insights. He has even documented the everyday life of a Flint Hills bison ranch.
"I had total access," he said. "They gave me such free range to roam. I'd go out there for days and shoot. I wanted to get a whole look at the natural landscape and the process of the place and how the place feels -- that's more important than how it looks."
Nedresky's photographic images have also been profitable. The Kansas Department of Travel and Tourism has purchased his photos for its travel and event guide, annual Kansas calendar and Kansas! magazine. Kansas State University has used his photos for its alumni association magazine.
His prairie fire images were included in Cricket Magazine and the Smithsonian Institution's Web page for children. Another image was used by Oxford University Press for the cover of a book about ecological research in the tallgrass prairie.
Nedresky's prairie photographs are on permanent exhibit at the Hulbert House, the headquarters for the Konza Prairie, and are showing at the Strecker Gallery in Manhattan. In addition, he and his wife are planning an upcoming show at the Lawrence Arts Center.
As far as new approaches to document the Flint Hills, Nedresky lately has been getting into aerial photography and finding new ways to capture the feeling of landscape and its light.
"It's an area that has sucked me in," he said. "It's calming, miles of undulating grasslands. There's nothing there to make you anxious."
-- Jan Biles' phone message number is 832-7146. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.