Hareker’s One Room Schoolhouses : Visions of an Iowa Icon

Author: Michael P. Harker

Publisher: University of Iowa Press

Review by Conrad J. Obregon

There is a type of traditional photograph that I think of as “confrontational”. The subject seems to present itself directly, with little effort to make us like it. Nothing is offered to make us care for the subject: no little bit of softening; or touching at a memory; or suggestion that something worth loving exists, or might have existed, within. If we love such a confrontational picture, it is because of what we bring to it; because of the connotations that we carry in our mind rather then the denotation of the photographer. If we love such a picture, it may be in spite of itself.

The pictures of the one-room schoolhouses that Michael Harker presents in these images are confrontational. The one-room schoolhouses are photographed without any mellowing influence. Instead, many of them are shot from a three-quarters angle so that one side appears in sunlight and another in shade. This in turn leads to a harsh and unmitigated contrast that is more likely to occupy the viewer’s mind than thoughts about what once went on inside the schoolhouses. Often someone’s picture of an old school building will lead us to wonder what life was like in its heyday, full of children and community. But these pictures of old schoolhouses reminded me only of the impermanence of what man creates.

Only in the few pictures of the interiors of a few of the schools do we think of the living who sat at the desks and prepared themselves to learn the world. Only then do we think that Paul Theobold, whose essay is included, might be right to suggest that we may have lost something of value when we switched from the one-room schoolhouse to the regional campus.

Although the black and white images presented here have a superficial resemblance to the images in the artist’s earlier book “Harker’s Barns”, a close reading of the two will show the differences. Both the structures and the angles of view of the different barns varied more than here. Some were still working, as indicated by the cattle or hay bales in the scene, even though they were starting to run down. Others showed us their context. Tonalities supported the overall feeling. Sometimes even the abandoned barns made us feel that something important had gone on there, and even, that perhaps they deserved a well-earned rest.

I’m certain there are people who find confrontational subjects attractive. There are also folks who so love these old schoolhouses that the approach of the photographer will not be material and these folks will find this volume interesting. But for me, Harker’s one-room schoolhouses remind me more of a disinterested archeology then of a work of love. Comparing the two books will help readers understand a great deal about the nature of photography.
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  1. Interesting book. At the risk of doing a plug, we’ve been running an art gallery out of a one room schoolhouse for 26 years. It was built in 1859 and served as a schoolhouse for about a hundred years. It’s a cool space, and if it is haunted, the ghosts have always been friendly. ;-) Never made a peep even when I had a studio and lived in the building for a year.
    There’s some cool grafitti carved into the bricks by kids over the last century and a half…and sometime I have to photgraph it all.


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