New York-based photographer Daniel Shea’s 2014 book Blisner, IL, is a collection of pointed, specific images—faded murals on brick walls, fronds of wheat in sunlight, empty storefronts and a pile of rusting railroad spikes. There are portaits of people, as well. Usually alone, often working, never posed. Through these intimate and detailed glimpses, the viewer can piece together what kind of town Bilsner might be—the kind of town anyone who has driven through southern Illinois would find familiar. Once bustling, Bilsner feels empty. Once booming, Bilsner is de-industrialized. Bilsner is rusty. Bilsner is struggling.
Bilsner, Illinois is also a fictional town. Shea took the photos in the collection throughout central and southern Illinois, and created an amalgamation of these places under the fictional name of Bilsner, Ill. The Yonder spoke with Shea about the project and its process, and his “productively fraught” relationship with the medium of photography.
Daily Yonder: Where did you grow up? Tell us a little bit about your background.
Daniel Shea: I grew up in Washington DC and the Chicago suburbs. I went to art school in Baltimore, lived in Chicago for 5 years, during which I get a MFA from UIC (University of Illinois at Chicago). I moved to New York City a few years ago and live in Queens now.
DY: When did you first start taking pictures?
DS: Casually, like most people, my whole life. But I got “into photography” in high school, and ended up studying it in undergrad, where I learned to have a productively fraught relationship with the medium.
DY: Tell us about your book, Blisner, IL. How did it begin?
DS: It began with a trip to Southern Illinois to photograph a specific piece of coal architecture, now in ruin. I then started thinking more about the region and its history. I was also simultaneously making pictures and collecting objects from a blighted part of south Chicago, with a different, but similar story. Once I started putting images together from both places, the project really started taking shape.
DY: The town of Blisner is one that you invented. Why did you decide to create a fictional town rather than focus on an actual town in Southern Illinois?
DS: The book itself is a composite of real places, organized under the auspices of a work of fiction. The fiction is both a poetic and critical device; I’m interested in the subjectivity of truths and histories.
DY: Where were these pictures taken. How did you find or choose these towns, and what is your process like? How long do you spend with these places? How much interaction do you have?
DS: he process, like many others, is both organic and calculated. I ended up spending a total of 5 years working on this project, which encompasses 3 publications. In the end, I visited literally every mid to large-sized city in central and southern Illinois, sometimes spending a week or more, and sometimes traveling through in a half day.
DY: At least in my imagination, Blisner is a town with a population small enough to be technically considered rural, but has a different feel than what most people might think of when they imagine a rural place. In your mind, is Blisner a rural town?
DS: Blisner is a rural town in that its not dense and not connected to the infrastructure of a major city. I love how language like this is elastic; Blisner is situated in a rural (or country setting), but is technically a city, which connotes the urban. Earlier iterations of the project included more images from south Chicago which had more photographs that maybe registered as being more of a denser, urban city.
DY: What’s next for you? Do you have any projects your currently working on?
DS: I’m currently working on a new book and project that explores similar themes (mythology, labor, work) as they relate to contemporary conditions of economy, politics, and culture. It’s all very soup-y right now, but I hope to have something to show soon!