In August 2010, artist and musician Tom Cops travelled around the American Midwest for three weeks with his band, supporting the acclaimed Minnesotan blues musician Charlie Parr. During the tour, Tom attempted to photograph everyone he met, and places they passed through, looking for odd details in the landscape.
Here’s Tom’s dispatch for #AmericanGuideWeek. A note to the reader: Tom is from Bristol, England—a stranger in a strange land:
Touring with a band is a weird way to experience a place. It’s weirder still when you’re also a photographer because everything becomes a somewhat intense task trying to capture that place in the time you have between getting into town, soundchecking, eating dinner and the sun setting. In 2010 my band played in Grand Forks and Fargo in North Dakota (with an ill-advised drive to Minnesota in between). At Grand Forks we played outside at the Museum of Art, next to the train tracks. As we played, trains rumbled past and we witnessed our first taste of what we later dubbed the “Midwestern Pocket Dance” (hands in pockets and an enthusiastic shuffle of the feet, almost like line dancing on your own). We met a lot of nice people that night, and I photographed many (although lost those films somewhere in Wyoming) before returning to our far-too-posh hotel. The hotel was massive and from our room on the eleventh floor we could see over the whole town; it was totally flat. I felt dislocated from the place though; this was our first show and we were jet lagged.
Fargo was very different. We arrived as the sun was setting and as a classic car parade lumbered through town. We had a baby with us, so took turns in between sets pushing her through the streets in her pram. The whole place was quite surreal and felt like Hill Valley in Back to the Future. We met Jimmy who had been coming to shows by Charlie Parr, who we were touring with, for years. He bought all of our records and chatted for ages, sitting with us while Charlie played. We instantly felt like we belonged in the place, like we were with friends. We ended up signing loads of records for people, something that almost never happens (why would it?) and staying out far past the end of the show. We stayed in a weird motel that night, the kind that in movies people die in, and headed towards Montana the next day.
We coincided our tour with some kind of huge motorbike festival (which may or may not have something to do with a festival of eating testicles, Charlie was unclear on the details). We had planned to stay near a national park, but every motel we tried was full. We ended up in Beach, a tiny town right on the border with Montana. There was no beach in the town, and I’m assuming never was, but the sky opened out above us spreading amazing light over everything. Charlie said you’d only ever stay there if you had to. The lady that ran the place had loads of poodles and was quite fierce. Some of the doors didn’t close properly. In the morning we drove past the train tracks and huge grain storage things into town because I wanted to take some photographs. Beach was everything I love about small Midwestern towns; beautiful buildings, with all their history painted on the side in faded layers. The streets were nearly empty as we wandered around photographing, and every corner we turned presented another beautiful scene. A man named Larry saw me from across the street and called me over, asking what I was doing. When I told him, he invited me into the building he was standing by. This was Beach museum, which he and his wife ran. I stood in the first room talking to them about our trip, and looking around thinking that this was a nice room, but there wasn’t much there. He then asked me to look around the rest of the building, and as I walked through I saw room after room of amazing sights. There was a room where everyone in the town had a glass box and could fill it with whatever they wanted, giving an almost complete history of the town. There was a room with collections of pens, pencils and buttons all creating wild patterns on the walls. There was a collection of calendars from the 1920s onwards, weird old vehicles, collections of different toys. It was amazing, and the highlight of the whole tour for us. Charlie was baffled by why we were so excited by the town, he kept saying that it was just a little, empty town, the kind that he’d see everywhere on his travels around the Midwest, but it was beautiful to us.
I don’t know if I could explain the difference between North Dakota and South Dakota, between North Dakota and Wisconsin or Minnesota (I know there are differences!) because it’s too subtle to an outsider, but I know that the Midwest is totally different to the coasts. The Midwest, and places like Beach, North Dakota, make real what I always believed America was like from films and photographs growing up. I am grateful that I made myself walk around the towns looking for photographs, because I wouldn’t have experienced them if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have met people like Larry and Shirley Shulte and I wouldn’t have learnt all about the tiny town of Beach.
Find Tom Cops on his website, on Tumblr and on Flickr.