Viewfinder: Leland Payton

Leland Payton is a photographer and writer who runs Lens & Pen Press with his wife Crystal. Their books feature writing and photography primarily about the Midwest and Ozarks, where the couple spends a lot of time exploring small towns.  Payton spoke with the Yonder about what makes these areas unique, and why they’re such worthy subjects.

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Daily Yonder: Where did you grow up? Tell us a little bit about your background.
Leland Payton: Most of my childhood was spent in Sedalia, Missouri, which is on the border between the tall grass prairie and the hills of the Ozarks. In high school, I played jazz tenor sax, collected arrowheads, and fished the creeks every chance I got.

DY: You now live in Springfield, Missouri.  How did you end up there?
LP: We settled in Springfield primarily because of the excellent schools. Our older son had four years of Japanese by the time he graduated from high school and is now a Foreign Service Officer with the State Department. Our younger son has a master’s in English and an MBA both from Missouri State University here. He is a successful podcaster and freelance writer.

Because it’s close to Jefferson City, Bonnots Mill at the mouth of the Osage River has avoided the collapse of many Missouri villages.

DY: When did you first start taking pictures?
LP: All children draw. I never stopped. I always took a sketchpad when I looked for arrowheads or fished. I gradually started using a camera instead of pens and brushes in my mid twenties. This was a concession to commerciality.

DY: You and your wife, Crystal Payton, established Lens & Pen Press, a publishing company whose mission is to “document, explain and illustrate one of America’s least known but most surprising and distinct geographic and cultural regions.”  What do you find most surprising and distinct about the Ozarks and the Midwest?
LP: Through much of the American past, regionalism was acknowledged, even celebrated, and there were many representations of regional subjects in books and works of art in the national arts and media. In the last half-century big city, even international, interests have dominated. The things writers and artists found interesting about America’s regions are still present, they’re just not published or publicized on a national level as much as they once were.

The Midwest has an outlook that is decidedly formed by the agricultural experience, as you would expect since farming is its dominant activity. The Ozarks by contrast is not only hillier, rockier, forested and less fertile, it was settled by highland southerners who – while not cartoonish hillbillies, are still somewhat skeptical about a life spent behind a plow.  Leisure activity in primitive surroundings is time well spent. I go along with that.  These two regions are alike only in that they are decidedly non-urban.

Crystal, my wife, asleep on the banks of soon-to-be-dammed Osage River. Early 1970s.

DY: Why did you decide to start your own publishing company after having several books published by larger national publishing houses?
LP: Our nationally published books (by Abbeville Press, St. Martin’s Press and Chronicle Books) were reasonably successful, but when the publishing business became dominated by multi-national firms their needs were for bestsellers.  We, like many midlist authors, could not compete with autobiographies of Presidents and Hollywood celebrities or established genre fiction.  The books we had been successful with were about pop culture, which perversely we still like, but our affection for Americana with a geographic specificity is even greater. And there is a small but loyal readership for books on the Ozarks.

Youngers’ Bluff on the upper Osage.

DY: In your most recent book, Missouri Squarely Seen, you’ve collected pictures taken in Missouri, primarily in the 60’s and 70’s.  Why did you decide to publish those pictures now, and what do you hope the modern viewer will glean from this book?
LP: Missouri Squarely Seen is a personal photo essay. We were motivated to produce this when print-on-demand publishing improved its technology enough to make the project feasible. Most of our previous books were offset printed in Singapore by a high-end book producer. It’s very expensive and we have to pick titles that are less personal than Missouri Squarely Seen and Ozark-Prairie Border to justify the cost.

There is a continuity of character in Missouri especially in farming and small town environments. Sadly there are fewer old buildings and the ones that have survived are increasingly in bad shape.

As well as photographing nature, I was equally intrigued by rural scenes and small towns. This is Hermann, Missouri, 1972.

DY: You also run the website  Can you tell us what the phrase “hypercommon” means to you?
LP: “Hypercommon” is the result of us trying to figure out what it is we find so fascinating about the extraordinary ordinary that we find all around us. As we travel, we try to really look at the landscape that normally just slides by the passing car window. Taking the definitions of the two words we found the paradox that fascinates: HYPER – anxious, unstable, edgy, histrionic. COMMON – familiar, stereotypical, conventional, mediocre. America as paradox – but much more vital and interesting than sophisticates realize.

Hypercommon is our platform for looking at and discussing our varied interests in the world around us – small towns, hillbillies, tourism, souvenirs – with a “confessions” section for guilty pleasures and “various” for any other interesting thing that doesn’t fit in one of these categories (the decoration of utility poles, for instance).

Until commercial signage became collectible, the Missouri countryside was a museum of old advertising. Coke sign near Schell City.

DY:  Much of your photography and writing focuses on small towns.  Why are you drawn to visiting, thinking about, and documenting these places?
LP: My first memories were of Versailles, Missouri, which was my mother’s hometown. We lived there while my father was in the Army in Europe. It’s really a village, similar to Horse Cave, Kentucky where my father was born in 1899. My parents did not share my interest in Miles Davis or Picasso but obviously we share some cultural commonalities. They were pretty indifferent to art of any kind, but both had a sardonic sense of humor and disdain for pretention. I think this remains a characteristic of rural and small town culture. In general people from rural areas seem more direct and less controlled by advertising and the fads generated by mass media. Mark Twain is my favorite writer and country people seem more like characters in his books. I never tire of meeting, talking with and documenting life in middle American small towns and the Ozarks.

We started a website,, to accommodate our unorthodox interests in pop culture, ecology, and the fate of rural and small town regions.  These three shots are from the Ash Grove Main Street Heritage festival last year.

DY: Tell us a little bit about your aesthetic.  On your website, you mention your interest in architectural obsolescence, and the idea of memento mori.  And yet you also seem invested in vibrancy in small towns in the Ozarks and the Midwest. How do these ideas merge in your photography?
LP: Buildings, like people, have an expiration date. It’s not just that outback America has an abundance of relics of the past and ruins of former aspirations; the perception of the melancholy nature of human life and its artifacts and architecture permeates Western culture from the Greeks and ancient Hebrews to the present.  In the last few years we’ve noticed a surge of generally naïve self-expression in small towns around here. There are wacky festivals, mural paintings of an imagined past cover big brick walls along railroad tracks, and small businesses founded on idiosyncratic impulses are opening in once abandoned buildings on town squares. People have dived onto the Internet and it seems to have awakened an innate creativity that was once suppressed by the dominance of corporate controlled media. We delved into some of that in our piece on Buffalo Missouri on  Buffalo has used the bison as its branding symbol and its representation is all over town.

There’s hardly a small farming trade town in our part of Missouri that doesn’t have an Asian and/or Mexican owned restaurant enthusiastically supported by the locals. There’s something hopping and popping in these little towns that have been written off, but they’re still struggling with geographic isolation, aging infrastructure and a lack of political power. The locals get why I am walking down Main Street with a big camera. They too think their burg is a worthy subject for art. 



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