Photographing the Forgotten Magic of All 947 Towns in Iowa
Photographer Cody Weber's latest project is a love letter to the vanishing tiny town of his home state.
It's an Iowan pastime, Cody Weber tells me, to take long drives down dirt-and-gravel roads just to see where you'll end up. Often, these road will go on for miles, jilting your car with every bump on the rough terrain, before dropping you off in a little town with fewer than a thousand people. Sometimes, there's a gas station, but more often you find a patchwork of abandoned schoolhouses, corner stores with caved-in roofs, rolling fields, and houses where the same families of Iowans have lived for generations. If you blink, you'll miss these places entirely—but if you look at these towns very closely, with the right perspective, you just might find something magical there.
That's what Weber says, at least, and he would know. The native Iowan set off last month to photograph all 947 towns in the state for a project he calls Forgotten Iowa. The purpose, he says, is to capture these places as they really are, and restore a sense of pride in being an Iowan.
When I spoke to him about the project, he was unwaveringly polite, confirming the stereotype that Midwesterners really are the nicest people in the country. He seemed acutely aware that most people have never seen—or care to see—the towns that he's photographing, but in a way, that's exactly the point. Iowa is more than just barnyards and cornfields, he tells me, "The communities are the important part." And so as he visits each town, he makes an effort to talk to the people, to hear their stories, and photograph the places that are important to them—to reclaim "forgotten" Iowa.
VICE: Where in Iowa did you grow up?
Cody Weber: I'm from Keokuk, Iowa. It's a small town of about 10,000 people. It used to be about 20,000, but people just keep leaving.
Have you always lived there?
I've been everywhere. I think most people of my generation that grow up in Iowa, their big dream is to get the hell out of Iowa. [laughs] I think it's because when you're young, you have a harder time of appreciating the subtleties that make Iowa a cool place to be. But that's always the dream of kids, and it was certainly mine. When I turned 18, I moved out of my parents' house. I lived in New Orleans for a while. I met my girlfriend in Detroit and I've spent the last ten, 11 years traveling as much as I possibly can.
So, what brought you back?
I traced my lineage and discovered that my family has stayed in the same geographical area for over 150 years. They've been there forever. One of my ancestors was a famous musician named Carl Maria von Weber and it was really easy for me to track my lineage specifically because his has been so mapped out extensively. All I had to do was find my great-great-grandpa and someone else did all the legwork for me. I discovered that the reason my family came to America—we were German immigrants—was because one of my grandfathers could foresee the oncoming rise of Naziism and his wife was a Jewish woman. So they illegally boarded a fishing vessel and ended up in Virginia, and then their son came to Missouri in the early 1800s. Where I'm from is a tri-state area—you can get to Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois in five minutes—and in that little pocket, that's where they've remained ever since.
When I was young, I hated that. I didn't know how extensive it was—like, how long my family had stayed in that location—but I didn't like the idea that I had this destiny to live in a small, nothing town forever. So, for me, it was a big deal to not be that. I wanted to break the cycle. I think the reason why populations are starting to dwindle in Iowa is because millennials specifically are really attracted to cities because of the opportunity that just isn't there in small-town America.
It's not exactly the millennial dream to live in Iowa.
It for sure is not. But you know, I have a lot of friends who have spent their entire lives in big cities and they find it hard to even acknowledge that places like these towns can even exist. Because they're so used to towering skyscrapers and people everywhere, and these are these quiet little towns with buildings that haven't been touched in 200 years. It seems almost like a different world.
You're trying to visit all of the towns in Iowa. How many is that?
There are 947 incorporated towns, but I'm trying to be ambitious and get the unincorporated towns too. Those ones are a lot harder because some of them are down miles and miles of gravel road.
How many have you done so far?
I'm in the 60s now.
What have you learned about Iowa, or about Iowans?
The stereotype about Iowans is incredibly true: We're friendly. Like, Iowans are the most friendly people I have ever met. So much so that when I lived in places like Detroit or Louisiana, it shocked me that common manners weren't utilized, like holding a door open for someone. You have to do that in Iowa, and when you do, you're pretty much inviting yourself for a ten-minute conversation; definitely a "thank you" at the very least. But when I was in Michigan, because of the Iowan in me, I'd hold doors open for people and they downright thought that was weird. Where I come from, it's something you do. If you're the first one to the door, you hold it open for the next person. And there it's just like, I'll get my own damn door.
Are there any other stereotypes about Iowa you'd like to confirm or deny?
I've met a lot of people who confuse Iowa and Idaho—which is strange to me, because they couldn't be more different. You know, corn and potatoes are not the same thing. Another stereotype about Iowans is that while they're friendly, they're also on the lower side of intellect. That just is not true.
I can't speak for past generations, but in my generation, some of the most inspiring people come from these small towns. They're brilliant and intelligent; and because they're not so saturated with billboards and media all the time, they have soul; they have their own identity. When I've been involved in art scenes and music scenes in cities, things start to blend together. Bands want to sound like other bands and artists want to paint like other painters. There's not so much of that desire to do that here. People genuinely appreciate ingenuity in Iowa. Also, a lot of people assume that Iowa is a red state and that everybody is super conservative, when Iowa has kind of led the way in civil rights—women's right to vote, gay rights, and things of that nature. Generally, people here live by "I'm not gonna judge you as long as you're not affecting me," and I think that is a philosophy that the rest of the country could maybe take some lessons on.
"When I was a kid, everyone had this bumper sticker on their car and it said 'Keokuk Pride'—like, you're proud to be from this little town."
Is that part of what you're trying to accomplish with the photo series—to show Iowa and Iowans for what they really are?
I suppose, in a way. One criticism I've gotten is that I tend to focus my efforts on dilapidation and worn-down architecture and things of that nature because that, to me, is what these towns are. Those are the images that get stuck in your head. If you go to any site, you're not likely to see that stuff, if there's pictures at all. You're just not likely to see what it really is. I don't want to make Iowa seem better than it actually is, but I also don't want to make it seem like it's worse. I just want to give my perspective. And to me, it's not necessarily a negative thing if a town is run-down, or a town isn't getting the funds that they need, or tearing down buildings that might need to be torn down. In my opinion, that's what gives those towns personality.
When you visit a new town, are there particular things that you seek out to photograph?
If I ever come across an old school building, that is really interesting to me. Not because of the architecture, honestly, because most of the architecture of schools in this state are very similar. For me, the schools are a really interesting contrast between what we have now and what we had in the past. Sixty years ago, and even further back, Iowa had a lot more residents. There were a lot more people here, and a lot more going on. Now most of the schools are consolidated and for every town in the county, the kids in those counties have to go to the same school. But there are still remnants of a time when each town had their own school, and their own identity.
I saw a school the other day in Oakville, Iowa, where the roof had completely collapsed and the foundation was rotting. And it didn't look like anyone had any plans to touch it. I think the reason people don't want to tear these schools down is because they themselves have memories of it. A lot of the residents in these towns are older people and they went to these schools. A few years ago, there was a music store in my town that literally just collapsed, literally just fell down. It was pretty intense. Even with that—luckily no one got hurt, no one was there at the time—the older people in the town were like, "We can't tear these buildings down because they have historical significance." And really what they're saying when they say that is I have a personal attachment to these buildings and I don't want to see this town change.
The buildings aren't just structures; they're part of the town's collective memory.
They certainly are, especially in a small town. If you're in a city, there's development all the time, so you don't really have as much sentimental value for these buildings because there's things coming and going all the time. But there are restaurants in these small towns that have existed since my great-grandparents were children. It's just a staple of the communities, and you don't want to let these things go. You want your grandkids to experience them.
I really don't think that people in these communities see these buildings as they are. They see them as they were. So, I want to take photos of the worn-down elements because I think that that is a big part of Iowa's identity. You're not going to remember a shopping mall that looks the same as every single shopping mall in America; you're going to remember these individual structures that each have their own personality. If they stick in your head at all, I think, those are the things that are going to stick.
What kind of response have you gotten to the project so far?
Most of the emails I get are from people who have experiences in Iowa, like, "My grandparents live in this town and a lot of my fond memories are at their house." That's a common one that I get. Another email I get a lot is people who really want me to come to their town, because I think they have an understanding of what I'm trying to do and they have their own ideas, where they're like, "I know this building that he would never be able to find on his own." Which is great, because once I get out of southeast Iowa, it's gonna be a new adventure. There were towns that were literally 15 minutes away from where I grew up that I'd never even heard of or went to, ever. So it's great when there's a community outreach, when there's people that will show me things that I wouldn't be able to find on my own.
About 90 percent of the emails I get are positive. The 10 percent that are negative are generally people who honestly seem a little embarrassed of what I decided to take photos of [in their town]. On some fundamental level, that does bother me. That's not what I'm trying to do. I'm not trying to make citizens of this town feel like they're nobodies. I think the country already kind of does that on its own. That's why I called the project "Forgotten Iowa"—because Iowa is an incredibly important state, and yet it seems to not get any recognition. So I don't want to make those people embarrassed, but I kind of have to ignore it because if I try to cater to anything then I'm not being true to myself and my own perspective, and that will show in the work.
Wait, there are towns 15 minutes away from you that you've never heard of? How is that possible?
I think if you want to have a connection to one of these towns you have to know someone who lives there or family that lives there, because there's no business. There's a café or something, sometimes there's a gas station, but most of these towns don't even have that. They have ten or 11 families in them that have probably lived there as long as my family has lived in the town that I'm from. I never had a reason to go to these towns, which was a big motivating factor for me deciding to do this project. I consider myself an Iowan and I do have some sort of pride about that—I like being from Iowa—so I want to understand it on a broad scale.
I want people to have physical proof that these things existed, because they're not just buildings. They're memories.
As an Iowan, do you feel any sort of kinship with the people who live in these towns?
When I meet up with someone and they talk about their town, they describe their town the same way that I would describe mine. It's this combination of pride and also sadness. Because, even me—I'm only 26 years old—I remember being a child and the town being a lot better. There was a lot less drug usage, a lot more industry. When I was a kid, everyone had this bumper sticker on their car and it said "Keokuk Pride"—like, you're proud to be from this little town. And as I've gotten older, it's become Keokuk shame. Sometimes I go to towns and they say, "Where are you from?" and I say, "I'm from Keokuk," and they say, "Oh, I'm sorry."
I don't see Keokuk that way because, to me, Keokuk is a place that has really good-hearted people, really genuine people, who would give you the clothes off their back if you needed it. If you just drive through the town, it does look like someone dropped a bomb on it and people just decided to stay. So I can understand the perception. And that's why it's so confusing to me when I get an email and someone's like, "You're capturing the bad parts of this town," because to me, that's not what I'm doing. Those are the things that I like. Those are the good things about this town.
Do you think you'll live in Iowa forever?
I don't want my legacy to be Iowa. Honestly, once my girlfriend graduates [from Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa] we're planning on moving out West. I don't want to be 35 years old and still in Iowa doing family portraits. Also, winters here are brutal. They're so cold. I want to go somewhere where there's no snow. [laughs]
Is there a town that you've visited so far that sticks out in your mind? One that was unforgettable?
What Cheer, Iowa. It's an old coal mining town, and was once a very prosperous community. They had an opera house, and you can tell that there was a lot of culture there. If you go there now, the coal mines are obviously gone but the remnants are there, and you can see how great this town once was and how beautiful it once was. When we were there, this elderly lady saw me taking photos and she waved me down. She was probably close to 90 years old, and she began to tell me her entire life story—how she spent the duration of her entire existence, all 80-plus years of her life, in that town. She remembers it when it was this prosperous place and she was really happy to see me documenting it, because she said people don't really drive through there anymore. After they built the interstate, it's a real hassle to get to What Cheer, and it's not somewhere you go unless you live there. She remembered being a little girl and her dad coming home covered in black dust and going to the opera house on Friday nights. She said she was hoping in her lifetime she would see some sort of resurgence of the town, because she remembered it as such a beautiful place, but then she said "I'll never live to see this place get better."
Was that a watershed moment for you?
Yeah, that was kind of like a lightbulb in my head went off, because I realized that she was talking about What Cheer the same way I was talking about Keokuk. When I have someone come to Keokuk for the first time—like, when I took my girlfriend there—I point out every single thing that I remember from my youth, when the town was a better place. I show off all the cool things, and that's exactly what this woman was doing with me. But I'm not pushing 90 years old; I'm 26. Surely, by the time I'm her age, there are going to be significant changes and it's a big deal to me because of that to document these things that aren't going to last another 60 or 70 years. A lot of things that I photograph aren't going to last another five years. It's of the upmost importance to me to capture these things before they're gone because I do want people to have physical proof that these things existed, because they're not just buildings. They're memories. And I see how important that is to people.
At the same time, I'd like to see growth. You're not going to attract business owners when your roads are awful and your buildings are all run-down. You're just not gonna do it. It's this double-edged sword, because at some point, they're going to have to make the decision to do something about that. And I want the people to remember the town as it is or as it was; I want them to have that in some capacity.
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