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.

4  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)., 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.