What is the Midwest? Where does it start and where does it end? Who lives there? Despite having lived in the Midwest most of my 23 years—albeit in Michigan, which can get away with the “Mid-” but scarcely the “-west”—I’ve struggled to answer those basic questions about a place I thought I knew quite well. I’ve asked fellow Midwesterners, but they offer little clarity: The Midwest starts, traveling westward, in Ohio and ends in Kansas, they say, or picks up in West Virginia (Appalachian country to me) and ends in Utah (Utah?!). That the Midwest is manufacturing country, where people make and build things the rest of the US needs (though nowadays that could define China as well). That in the Midwest, and in Kansas in particular, one friend told me, people spoke the clearest, truest form of American english, a claim I’ve yet to fully understand but nonetheless made me feel proud of where I came from.
For a much more eloquent depiction of my beloved Midwest, I defer to photographer Lara Shipley, based in Missouri. Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish, over at The Atlantic, features a series of her photos on the Midwest, and as a completely unbiased Midwesterner, I highly recommend them to all. They remind of Robert Frank’s The Americans, but set entirely in the American Midwest. The photos posted, with a mini-essay by Conor Friedersdorf, are especially evocative of the region’s economic decay, as manufacturing jobs have been wiped out and unemployment far exceeds the national average in parts of states like Michigan and Ohio. (For another great photo essay on the Midwest, be sure to check out Mother Jones‘ “End of the Line,” a great photo essay by photographer Danny Wilcox Frazier and writer Charlie LeDuff from our Sept/Oct 2009 issue.)
Shipley’s Midwest photos are quiet and eclectic, gritty and darkly funny. They’re more than worth ten minutes of your time.