In 2013, twenty-six-year-old Cody Weber began exploring his family history by photographing in and around his hometown of Keokuk, Iowa. This sparked his ambitious project Forgotten Iowa, for which Weber plans to photograph all of Iowa’s 947 official and unincorporated towns. We talked to Weber about what the process has been like so far, and why he’s so drawn to his home state.
Daily Yonder: Where did you grow up? Tell us a little bit about your background.
Cody Weber: I grew up in Keokuk, Iowa. It's a small river town in Southeast Iowa. The people there are as friendly as the architecture is worn. Despite its pratfalls, the community is very warm and inviting, and I take a lot of pride in being an Iowan, but even more specifically as a Keokukian. I grew up the same way that most of my peers in the community did, whether it was riding bikes throughout town or fishing on the coast of the Mississippi river. Keokuk is a great place to wander, to get lost, and it's not hard to spend entire days doing just that.
DY: When did you first start taking pictures?
CW: I've been photographing my life almost every single day since the day I turned fifteen. I'm twenty-six now, so I guess that's a little more than a decade. It's strange to go back and look at events as they unfolded in retrospect. There are entire months that my brain really doesn't even really remember, but the photo evidence is still there. I really believe that, as egotistical as it is, it's helped shape me and become all the more self-aware. As of today, I have taken over 2.5 million photos…and I've deleted nothing.
In fact, the longest break I have ever taken is five days in late 2008 when I had pneumonia.
DY: After years of traveling, you’re back in Iowa taking pictures. Why did you decide to head back to Iowa? How long do you plan to stay?
CW: Southeast Iowa is my safe place. It's where my entire family resides, where most of my friends live, and where I feel the most at home. Every time I've ventured to other cities, I always find myself longing for a slower existence. Cities are overwhelming to me. Everybody has somewhere to be, all the time, and almost without exception. There's no time to just stop and converse with a total stranger. That couldn't be any further from reality in small-town USA. I love that I can bump into somebody that I don't even know and end up learning a lot about them. I am a small-town kid just by my very nature, and it's become obvious to me that you can take the boy out of the town but you can't take the town out of the boy. It took a long time to accept that reality, and I actually envied the kids of inner-cities who seemed to take on the sprawl of a cityscape as part of their routine. I've spent entire years of my life in cities and I've never once been able to do that. I get overwhelmed too easily. I miss seeing stars. It's the little things.
So, I suppose the question is never “How long do I plan to stay?” as much as it's, “How long do you plan to stay away?” No matter where I end up, a large part of my heart belongs to Keokuk. It always will. And though I'm absolutely aware of the mountains that the community has to climb, I still associate my mentalities with it. Everything I think, whether it's my political or ideological stances, stemmed from that community. It was birthed through those experiences and those people. There is no shortage of love that I have for my community. Logistically speaking, though, I'm also aware that sometimes you have to venture elsewhere to improve your own position. And that's what I imagine I'll end up doing; living in a series of small apartments in various places until I find a place that suits me just as well as Keokuk did. You wouldn't believe how difficult that's been thus far. I feel out of place wherever I go, even when I've been an active part in various art and music scenes. I'm still this outsider, you know, the small-town kid that I've always been. You can't run from that because it can outrun you. It's nothing for reality to stay in pace.
DY: Tell us about the Forgotten Iowa Project. How did it begin and what is its aim?
I became mildly obsessed with researching my ancestry in the summer of 2013, and I discovered that my family has stayed in the same geographical pocket for more than a hundred and fifty years. Not all in Keokuk, obviously, but well within 50 miles of it. It started in Virginia, though, and moved toward Kahoka, Missouri in the 1800's. From there, my family has stayed put. They've weathered population rises and falls, factories coming and going, and the like.
Anyway, that really got me thinking. I wanted to know more about my ancestors, so I eventually worked my way to these small towns. I saw family homes that were constructed by my great-great-great grandfather. To this day, they stand and families live in them. That's an incredible feat and was so awe-inspiring to me. It showed me that your legacy doesn't die with you. It lives on with the people you loved, the people that loved you, and the things that you helped create.
That was a watershed moment for me. I started scouring the internet for information and photographs of surrounding towns and was disappointed to discover that at least half of them didn't have a single photograph. Not one. Zilch. This seemed like such a disservice to me that I had to go and capture them for myself. If nobody else is doing it, then why not me? Once I finished a county or two, I started to wonder if this problem was present throughout the state, and lo-and-behold; it was. And that's where the project was born. The premise was simple enough – I would travel to each county and take photos of each town. There was no agenda, there still isn't, I just wanted to capture the towns as I experienced them. And that's what I've done, I suppose. We're still in an infancy of sorts, so there's a lot of time for the project to create itself. I'm trying very hard not to attach any political or personal motivations. I just want to document things that interest me, places and people that I think might interest other people, too. But it starts with me. If I don't find it interesting, I won't bother to photograph it. That's why you're not likely to see a photo of a strip-mall or a Wal-Mart. They all look exactly the same and there's nothing more boring to me than that. There's nothing scarier to me than seeing a housing district where every single home looks like a carbon copy of the one next to it. That's so disingenuous and uninspired. I'm more interested in the things that people have forgot about, the buildings that people have let sit for decades. They have the most soul, like an old prizefighter who talks about his glory days with missing teeth and a bad case of cauliflower ear.
DY : What’s your process like? How long do you spend in each town? What do you do when you get there?
CW: It varies from town-to-town. Sometimes my girlfriend and I will spend several hours in a town. We'll get lunch at a local diner or something, find ourselves lost down the beaten path of gravel roads and forest. Other times, the communities are so small and isolated that we'll be lucky to spend twenty minutes there. And that's a shame because I'm sure I'm not giving enough attention to those towns, but it's unrealistic to spend hours at every single location. There just isn't enough time for that.
There's no real process, and that's what keeps the project exciting. It's gotten to the point where I don't even do much research before we venture to these places. I like the thrill of not knowing, exploring the same way that my ancestors did. We don't even use smart-phones or a GPS navigator. It's very basic. In my opinion, though, that's the only way to truly experience these towns, especially since many of them haven't been touched in twenty or thirty years. Maybe we take it a little too literally or too far, I'm not sure exactly, but there's something to be said about getting lost sometimes. Sometimes it's necessary.
Instead of a GPS navigator, we'll start the day by printing two maps: a current map provided by Google and then the oldest possible map that we can find. This ensures that we cover our ground thoroughly, capturing both the towns that remain and the ones that have been lost with time. Croton, Iowa, for instance, would have never been explored if it weren't for the hundred year old image that my girlfriend found. That town wasn't on the Google map and it wasn't included in any other map we could find. But it was a treasure trove, full of beautiful forestation and untouched homes, and it was less than twenty miles from the town I grew up in! Even being that close, I had no idea of its existence. Not once in my twenty-six years of life had somebody mentioned that town. Not one time.
DY: Many of your pictures show buildings or infrastructure in states of disrepair or neglect. Do you worry about how people will interpret these images?
CW:I can't concern myself with how people are going to interpret what I'm doing. For the most part, the response has been incredibly positive, and even the negative response has been rooted in kindness. I'm not trying to make Iowa seem any worse than it actually is, but I'm not a spokesperson for the state trying to talk it up and make it sound better either. My only goal is honesty, and that's honestly how I experience these places. I experience a connection to broken down architecture, and maybe that has to do with all the worn buildings in my own home town. I'm not interested in capturing development, and that's mostly because I don't find modern architecture to be all that exciting. Everything starts to blend together, and that's awfully boring to me. I love finding buildings that have weathered the storm and remained in some capacity. Buildings that were plotted and constructed by hand, before the advent of modern machinery. As blessed as we may be to have these modern conveniences, I do believe that we have sacrificed a certain amount of soul in the process.
So for me, there is no agenda. People are free to experience the project in whatever manner they decide to. I'm completely okay with a negative response as long as it's genuine. That's the beautiful thing about art in any capacity; it doesn't matter what my message is because you're not necessarily going to share that by viewing it. Art is inherently subjective and you're free to experience it however you want to. If you think that I'm trying to say something, though, I'm really not. Honestly. This project is less art for me and more journalistic. I'm attracted to things that people try to stow away. I like secrets. And I have ten-thousand projects with intent behind them, where I'm actively trying to say something. It's nice to have a project without that kind of expectation. It's completely new and fresh for me, absolutely riding against the grain of how I normally operate.
DY: What’s the future of the Forgotten Iowa Project? What will you do when you finished photographing all 947 towns?
CW: I really don't want to get ahead of myself. I haven't even finished a ninth of that list, so to talk about the completion just feels premature. I've considered a coffee-table book if I can find a publisher that would be willing to take that on. But I'd be comfortable if it just remains an online entity, too. I'm trying really hard not to focus too much on the end result and instead relish in the experience itself. Otherwise, I'd just be living on the outside of right now. And that doesn't exist. Not yet, anyway, and nothing ever ends up being the way you thought it would be. It's better to just take it one town at a time, one county at a time, and I imagine the culmination will invent itself when an opportunity is presented. Until then, I'm kind of ignoring the idea that this could ever end.
DY: What do you love most about Iowa?
CW: The people. I've never met a friendlier bunch, and I've never found it so easy to form relationships. I am routinely inspired by these people and their perseverance is just incredible to me. Everywhere else I've ever lived, whether it be the bayou of New Orleans or along the dense highways of Detroit, I've never met people that were so…genuine. Or strong. At the very least, totally without an agenda. They say that the mark of a truly good person is watching how they treat somebody that can offer nothing to them. And in Iowa, everyone seems to be given a fair shake. We have led the nation when it comes to equal rights for women. We have been at the forefront of gay rights. I take a lot of pride in that. You can say what you want about this part of the world, but we have made it apparent that we stick up for what is right. We don't buy into the media machine. We don't feed it. We don't need a reason to form relationships with our neighbors and bordering communities. We do it because that's the right thing to do, and I really, truly believe that the rest of the nation could take a few notes when it comes to that.