The Design Observer Group


Posted 03.15.10


Frank Gohlke

Grain Elevators



In coordination with Brian Rosa's review of Frank Gohlke's Thoughts on Landscape, we present selected images from Gohlke's series of photographs of grain elevators in the Midwest and Great Plains. 

In the autumn of 1971, after seven years in New England, I moved with my family to the Midwest. The windows of our hilltop apartment gave onto a comprehensive view of the Midway, a mile-long stretch of grain elevators and railroad tracks on the boundary between the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. During the months of disorientation following the move, I would often stare idly out the window, content, after my experience of the intimate, crowded landscapes of the eastern seaboard, to be once again in a place where my eyes could find real distances. As I gained my bearings, the grain elevators of the Midway began to draw my attention. Their scale, featureless surfaces, and simple repetitive forms gained a hold on my imagination that I could not fully comprehend. . . .


PLAY SLIDESHOW Play


At first I just savored the strong emotions the place provoked, which mixed the awe one feels in the presence of monumental architecture with the impatient curiosity of an archaelogist at a new site. The place encouraged fantasies of lost worlds and vanished empires, of abandoned cities whose makers' intentions were utterly inscrutable to me. The grain elevators' resemblance to habitable architecture, however, only serves to dramatize the differences. The windowless, largely unbroken expanses of concrete or corrugated steel ten or more stores tall and hundreds of feet long produce a strange sense of dislocation when one is near them. The curved sides of the concrete elevators do unexpected things to shadows, transforming straight lines into arcs, drooping wires back into straight lines. The sounds that come from inside the elevators — whining, thrumming, generic machine noise — reverberate in the deep alleys between rows of bins. The light seems to come from far away. Other people are seldom seen. . . .

Frank Gohlke, from Measures of Emptiness: Grain Elevators in the American Landscape, first published in 1992 and now included in Thoughts on Landscape, recently published by Hol Art Books