A sheer curtain wrapped around the center post of a broken window.
Abandoned bar stools that patiently wait for guests to sit a while.
An upright piano whose uneven keys appear to be frozen at spot where the last player touched them. A thin layer of dust hides the once-dark finish, giving the instrument the look of an apparition — as if some ghost were about to sit down and play.
These are just some of the images created by Nancy Warner during yearly visits to Cuming County.
The San Francisco photographer journeyed to the middle of the country to visit the land where her grandparents homesteaded and her parents were raised.
During one of those visits, she happened upon the Stark farm, once home to her grandparents, Henry and Hildegard.
There she found “torn curtains, peeling wallpaper, cracked paint and plaster, worn clothing” — items left untouched for years. She pointed her camera at the objects and came away with images that show a fading way of life in rural America.
With every visit, Warner added to her portfolio — Uncle Martin and Aunt Ferny’s place; the town of Aloys.
After each visit, Warner returned to her San Francisco studio where she processed the film and made the images. In time, she created an exhibit of her work, which was on display at the Norfolk Arts Center three years ago.
Now, those images and more have been accumulated into a book. They are accompanied by text written by David Stark, Warner’s cousin, who is part of the Cuming County legacy.
Stark, a sociologist who teaches at Columbia University in New York, was the first to suggest that Warner assemble the images in a book.
Stark’s wife, Monique, suggested that her husband would be the “perfect person” to write the narrative to accompany the photos, Warner said.
So the cousins returned to Cuming County to visit the “old places” and chat with people while standing in the yard or sitting around the kitchen table, Warner said.
They talked to aunt Ferny, cousins Steve, Gary, Jeff, Donna, Sue . . .
Then they returned to their respective homes, reviewed their material, made notes and came back to Nebraska. This time, Stark had researched farming practices, immigration and other topics that they discussed with their Cuming County friends and relatives.
The cousins went their separate ways again, and Stark wrote the narrative based on those conversations. Then Stark and Warner designed the book.
The University of Columbia Press recognized the value of the work and offered to publish it.
Now, “This place, These People, Life and Shadow on the Great Plains,” is available to the public.
* * *
“After we first got married, we lived in a brooder house. That’s where they raised chickens. A brooder house. We lived in that house till the stove blew up. I was carrying Rodger. I tripped. But we made it to the in-laws’.” — Ferny
Those words accompany an image of the side of a house covered with grimy clapboard siding. Two windows look into the house’s black interior. They are banked on either side by narrow, barren tree trunks. A weathered tank sits along the wall, just next to the tree trunk and close to the lower window.
* * *
Another image shows a stairway leading to a crumbling second floor. Peeling wall covering reveals the wood slats and bricks below. Sunlight streams in from somewhere — an exposed window or hole in the wall — it’s hard to tell.
“That was a sent-for house. They ordered it from the Sears Roebuck catalog. One of those T-style houses. They spotted that house so they could look out and see all three quarter-sections. You want to see the fruits of your labor.” — David.
* * *
The words that accompany each photo were not necessarily written or said in reference to that particular building or scene, Warner said.
Instead, they are “based on the voices themselves: the sounds, rhythms and emotions that seemed to best set off the feeling of each photograph.”
The photos were made with old-fashioned film, not digital technology that Warner uses in some of her professional work.
She chose to use film for this project because it’s such an “expressive medium.” She also made the actual prints in her darkroom, which allowed her to create images that are in line with the way the eye sees light and shadows, she said.
And, although the images were taken in Northeast Nebraska, Warner believes they will speak to anyone who has ties, or even an interest, in rural America — those whose memories are triggered by the torn wallpaper, rickety stairs and falling-down buildings.
“There are so many people whose histories are similar,” Warner said. “I think it (the book) does have national appeal.”