Ontonagon County Redocumentation
2020 Photo by Nathan Miller
1995 Photo by Dr. Jon Rieger
2018 Photo by Nathan Miller
Several decades ago, the late Dr. Jon Rieger from the University of Louisville was working on his dissertation studying outmigration in rural Ontonagon County. During one fateful visit in 1970, he decided to take some photos of the area. Realizing later that his photos spoke more about the transformation of the communities in this area than surveys of high school graduates did, he shifted his focus and kicked off an ongoing study retaking those photos periodically as a visual record of the region's decline. He soon became a leading figure in the field of visual sociology and his quinquennial surveys of Ontonagon County ballooned from around 100 photos to over 600. He has a photo of everything, from ordinary single family homes to notable businesses and government buildings to streetscapes both busy and barren.
In 2018 Dr. Rieger was planning to retire and needed a replacement to keep the project going. Here's where I come in: I love exploring the middle of nowhere and have experience documenting historic sites in the region. We hit it off and after many long conversations over diner lunches, Rieger trusted me to take over the longest running redocumentation project of this scale in the country. If things work out I have the option of continuing this project for the foreseeable future. Unlike Jon though, I won't be shooting on black and white film. For the first time in its history, the project will finally be moving to color and the digital age. This will not only allow me to do my work faster, but will also result in a higher quality product for public consumption.
I spent much of the summer of 2020 working on the quinquennial survey, roaming the County from top to bottom in my quest to continue Jon Rieger's legacy. Unfortunately, Jon didn't get to see the next generation of his work completed. He passed away in July 2020 not long after my work got underway and left behind a long list of accomplishments, family, and friends across the country. I feel lucky to have met him and miss his behind-the-scenes cheerleading as I brainstormed how best to undertake my version of his work. Hopefully I've got fifty years left in me to give to tip the project into full century of photos.
Eventually the photos will be available for public viewing at the Ontonagon County Historical Society, University of Louisville, and other archives in the area. I hope to aid the Ontonagon County Historical Society in making Jon's film shots more easily accessible and searchable with a new digital database. Who knew transcribing 50 years of written notes from thousands of photos would be so difficult? My goal is to be able to easily follow a site through time, from Jon's original 1970 shots up to the present age. Only then will our shared vision be satisfied!