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Twin Cities Daily Planet: Landfall, Minnesota: Photographer Jared Watsabaugh finds beauty in a town of manufactured housing

TWIN CITIES DAILY PLANET

Landfall, Minnesota: Photographer Jared Watsabaugh finds beauty in a town of manufactured housing

Landfall, Minnesota is one of only two incorporated cities in the United States comprising almost entirely manufactured housing. The other one—a city by the name of Hilltop—is also in Minnesota, photographer Jared Watsabaugh tells me.

Watsabaugh, a 26-year-old photographer who graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) in 2006, gained this obscure knowledge while photographing Landfall for a project called “What’s New” designed by OverExposure Media. The Landfall exhibit will open at Augsburg College’s Christensen Center Art Gallery on Friday and will be open to the public through late August.

OverExposure, a Twin Cities media arts organization, was in the making since 2003, when founder Susan Boecher taught community-based photography classes at Metropolitan State University and MCAD. It was incorporated in 2005 and gained tax-exempt status in 2006.

OverExposure’s mission is to form “partnerships between photographers, students, tax-exempt nonprofits, community groups, and learning institutions on theme-specific media projects.” As part of the “What’s New” project, OverExposure paired ten photographers with ten community partners to do photo documentaries of ten Twin Cities neighborhoods. They called this project “10.10.10.”

Watsabaugh contributed to 10.10.10 photographing Dayton’s Bluff last summer. According to Watsabaugh, after three years every neighborhood in the Twin Cities area will have a photo documentary portfolio. The project is in its second year and second phase, called 32×4, in which four photographers are working with eight organizations to document 32 neighborhoods.

The community in Landfall—located just east of St. Paul—expressed a great deal of interest in the 10.10.10 project, and Boecher asked Watsabaugh if he would be interested in photographing the town. “[Landfall is] the type of thing where if you’re driving on 94, you could just pass it and not know it exists,” Watsabaugh says.

Venturing into this town that many Minnesotans probably have never heard of, Watsabaugh discovered that Landfall is an energetic and happy place. The town is very small—about 700 residents—and mobile homes were built there when there was a shortage of affordable housing. “It’s actually a good place to raise kids,” Watsabaugh says. “It almost feels like the kids run the place—it’s a little strange. When I was photographing, the kids would just be running around.” In 2008, in fact, Landfall was named one of the 100 best communities for young people by the youth-oriented foundation, America’s Promise.

“I had nothing but good experiences,” Watsabaugh says of photographing Landfall. “The only disappointing experience was that in the winter I wanted to photograph ice fishing, but there were no fishing houses on the lake.”

When asked about themes in his Landfall work, Watasbaugh says that “I aimed at showing people having a good time.” This came naturally, he explains. “The photographs are very community-oriented, and there are a lot of positive aspects about the [Landfall] community. It’s small enough that it’s got that small-town feel: everyone knows each other, there’s little crime.”

Other aspects of the Landfall photographs contribute to a more natural, rustic feel than Watsabaugh’s previous work. Before this project, he focused on life-size pictures of individuals paired with an object they considered to be a signifier for their person. He would jumble up the images so eventually the line between signifier and signified becomes blurred. These images appeared as part of an exhibit called Double Entendre at IFP MN Center for Media Arts.

With the Landfall photographs, Watsabaugh instead focused on people within their natural environment. “The person who seemingly would be your subject becomes a secondary [subject] sometimes,” he explains, “and instead of having a lot of technical details like the way your lights are set, it is completely environmental.”

“Only a couple of the images were shot with artificial light,” Watsabaugh continues. “Most of them were shot with natural light, but what’s interesting is that most of the community is shaded by tree cover, so there’s a lot of natural, soft light.” Whether it is studio or documentary work, though, Watsabaugh emphasizes that his work “deals with people and what makes people the way they are.”

While the Landfall project was a step in a different stylistic direction for him, Watsabaugh may have uncovered an unknown personal interest in this niche area of incorporated manufactured housing cities. He expressed interest in possibly doing a similar project in Hilltop, which would probably make him the first photographer to do a photo documentary of these cities.

That may depend on how the Landfall exhibit is received. “Hopefully they’re interesting images and [they’ll be] well-received and people [will] get to see something they didn’t expect,” Watsabaugh says. “Ideally, people who drive down 94 every day will realize that all this time they’ve been driving past such a unique area.”

Ellen Frazel (efrazel@macalester.edu) is a recent graduate of Macalester College, with a degree in English and creative writing.

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