Ghosts of North Dakota has been lucky over the years to make the acquaintance of a number of talented artists and photographers who share our passion for the history and austere beauty of the prairie. One of those artists is John Piepkorn, who has contributed photos of Hanks, North Dakota (population one), the Hamlet School, and the Wheelock School, among others.
John took a few minutes from a busy schedule of photography, fat tire biking, and holiday festivities to answer a few questions for us.
Q: You’re in Minnesota now, correct? Where do you live, and what is your connection to North Dakota?
I live in Minnetonka, Minnesota. I went to college in the Fargo-Moorhead area where I met my wife Ann, who grew up in Fairview, Montana, which is literally on the state line with North Dakota. We would go to my in-law’s house one or two times a year, and as a result, I have driven across the state of North Dakota too many times to count. I have always been fascinated by the abandoned farmsteads, schools and churches that dot the landscape and wanted to know the stories behind them. North Dakota is really under appreciated. I think the scenery in some parts of the state, while sometimes stark, is still beautiful.
Q: What do you do for a living?
I am a photographer for a cataloging company in Minneapolis. Our company sells aftermarket products for motorcycles, ATVs, snowmobiles and personal watercraft.
There are so many really interesting places in North Dakota. It’s tough to pick just one favorite, but I would say some of the one room schoolhouses in the SW part of the state, like Griffin, or Gascoyne or Nebo or Grand River. The landscape in that part of the state really gives the images a feeling of desolation. I think it really “fits” the subject matter. When you are out there, it’s hard to imagine being a kid and attending school in a place like that.
I’m also fascinated by the abandoned churches, they were the things that were often the center of the community and anchored people to the land. Of those, I would say Hurricane Lake Church in Pierce County is on of my favorites (maybe because it has such and interesting name).
Also, not to be too long winded, there are some really beautiful grain elevators, especially the faded wooden ones like in Charbonneau, ND.
Q: Is there a place you want to photograph, in North Dakota or beyond, that you haven’t been to yet? Why do you want to shoot it?
I’ve been across the state multiple times, but I haven’t been to the NE part of the state all that much. I enjoyed the western part of the state from a photographic standpoint simply because the lack of trees makes it easier to compose my photographs. There are too many spots I have mapped out to pick just one, I want to find all these abandoned places and capture these images before the structures fall down or are torn down.
Q: What is your process for finding out-of-the-way places? Do you use mapping software? Navigation? etc…
You will eventually find some interesting spots to photograph by driving down just about any gravel road in North Dakota, but since I have a limited amount of time to be out taking photos, I try to make the most of my time. I purchased some ND DOT maps which are pretty detailed, and show the old schools and churches that I like to shoot. I cross-reference those sites with Google maps to see if the structure on the map is still standing, then try to plan out an effective route to see as much as possible in as short a time as possible. Panoramio is also a great site to find some of these out of the way places. When you are out driving around, a GPS is a necessity. Sometimes you don’t get phone service, so a Garmin or Magellan system is invaluable.
Q: Artists frequently strive to monetize their craft and achieve the dream of making art for a living. Is that something you work toward? What do you do? Any exhibitions coming up?
My goal is make enough off my photos to fund my next North Dakota photo trip. I’ve had two photo exhibitions so far featuring images of these abandoned places. I’m working on my proposal for my next one. I’ve sold a number of photos and have had images published in a number of publications.
Q: Where can people see more of your work?
Q: Where can we follow you?
Original content copyright © 2015 Sonic Tremor Media
Troy Larson is an author, photographer, gentleman adventurer (debatable) from Fargo, North Dakota, and co-founder of Ghosts of North Dakota. @NorthDakotaTroy