In some areas of the U.S., such as the deep South or many coastal regions, residents tend to have a rather clearly defined sense of regional identity. For many people in the Midwest however, that notion of identity seems comparatively more vague or ambiguous: they might be more likely to simply consider themselves ordinary Americans than boldly (or primarily/individually) "Midwestern".
In other ways (including identity, geography, and more), the region is perhaps some form of middle other: not quite east, not quite west, but stuck somewhere in the in-between. Or, as David Foster Wallace wickedly sums up in The Broom of the System, much of whose fictitious plot unfolds in my native Cleveland and elsewhere in Ohio:
"…what are we to say of this area of the country…both in the middle and on the fringe. The physical heart, and the cultural extremity. Corn, a steadily waning complex of heavy industry, and sports… We feed and stoke and supply a nation much of which doesn't know we exist. A nation we tend to be decades behind, culturally and intellectually… This area makes for truly bizarre people. Troubled peopled… And when the people in question then become old, when they must not only come to terms with and recognize the implications of their consciousness of themselves as part of this strange, occluded place, when they must incorporate and manage memory, as well, past perceptions and feelings. Perceptions of the past. Memories: things that both are and aren't. The Midwest: a place that both is and isn't."
Its possible that some aspects of the seemingly evasive Midwestern identity can be visualized through the stark horizontal lines that pervade the landscape here -- imposing wide, flat expanses that evoke various conflicting and contradictory ideas in the minds of natives, the general American imagination, and the proclivities of the political sphere.
Further, a sort of mundane uniformity is often reflected in the built landscape around much of the region as well, for example seen in the endlessly gridded street systems and town-to-town layouts largely passed down through the historical establishment of agricultural plots and communities along transportation routes.
In thinking about and working through these concepts, one solid reference point for me has been the Ohio photographs of Joachim Brohm, created in 1983-84 while he lived in Columbus, Ohio on a Fulbright scholarship (the images were later published in book form by Steidl).
(**note: all images below are from the book Ohio, copyright Joachim Brohm**)
Topically, Brohm's approach to the Ohio landscape around him reveals the profound influences of New Topographics photographers (especially Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz, the latter of whom Brohm met in 1981) on his work. And aesthetically, Brohm's rather early forays into color photography reflect his deep interest in the color works of American photographers a decade before him such as Stephen Shore and William Eggleston (whose groundbreaking exhibition of color prints at MoMA in 1976 helped solidify a new foothold for color photography in the art world).
Working with a handheld medium format camera, most of Brohm's photos are composed at eye level in snapshot style, and utilize an intentionally muted color palette whose drab, desaturated hues combine to create a distinct mood throughout. He focuses his lens on fringe spaces of the urban and suburban landscape: parking lots, overhead wires, fences, back alleys, worn and emptied roads -- much of which is reminiscent of Shore's Uncommon Places.
While the human presence is indelibly felt in his images, few actual people appear in them, and those we do see often seem rather disengaged or isolated -- summarily, this contrast creates poignant symbols of the decentralization that plagued urban areas nationwide during a period of accelerated suburban sprawl, white flight, and disinvestment (or reinvestment elsewhere, typically along the suburban arterial highways). The sense of decay left in its wake (and illustrated through many of Brohm's Ohio photos) hints at the fleetingness of the American Dream in that era -- not quite the new "morning in America" purported by Reagan's campaign rhetoric and economic policies of the day.
Brohm's keen eye for subtle details in the landscape and banal insignificant moments of daily life direct the viewer towards locating his Midwestern setting, as a certain sense of "everywhere and nowhere" permeates each photograph. To be sure, in many ways Columbus, Ohio is the perfect epitome of "everywhere and nowhere": a place that is continually vacillating between the gravity of its northern (think Cleveland, union labor, liberal politics) and southern (think Cincinnati with its comparatively conservative leanings and complicated racial history) neighbors; a place that has, perhaps with a mix of pride and reticence, long been a fertile testing ground for consumer products and advertising campaigns (think big box stores and chain restaurants).
Yet in that process of being a barometer of American averageness, Columbus merely becomes distinctively indistinct, returning us to the theory of the ambiguous regional identity in the Midwest, perhaps decisively personified in Ohio itself -- or, as Vince Leo writes in an essay in Brohm's Ohio book: "…the real Ohio exists in the discussion, in the not-yet-but-maybe, in the confusion, terror, and promise of malleable identity."