The latitude line N 40° 00′ 00″cuts the United States in half, roughly speaking, passing through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California, and serving as the border between Nebraska and Kansas along the way. The parallel intersects with a full longitudinal degree every 53 miles, creating 52 cartographically significant grid points from coast to coast, each delineating a broom-closet-sized patch of land of about 20 square feet. For the last 20 years, at these unique spots, Bruce Myren has slowly and methodically documented the country in photographs.
Many of the photographs show fields and forests. A handful show farms and small towns. One put Myren in the rough on a golf course. But they’re all America as it exists along the 40th parallel, scenes at once totally precise and utterly arbitrary.
Myren first had the idea for the project in 1991, and tried to get started with precise maps available from the U.S. Geological Survey, but he couldn’t really start in earnest until 1998, when he bought his first GPS device, a Magellan ColorTrak. But even with GPS, “there is still plenty of adventure to be had trying to get to some of the locations,” he says, including one mountainous spot in California that required two attempts.
That element of adventure is an integral part of the project, dubbed the Fortieth Parallel, not only in terms of Myren’s experience today but also in the history of the line itself. In the 18th century, the 40th parallel served as a contentious border between Pennsylvania and Maryland, eventually leading to the surveying of the Mason-Dixon line in 1763. And in the 19th century, one of photography’s founding fathers, Timothy O’Sullivan, photographed along the line extensively as part of a U.S. Geological Survey expedition.
But while Myren may not be the first photographer to capture the country at that particular latitude, he’s almost certainly the first to do it so deliberately. The project isn’t only about capturing shots of the country, he explains, but also about honoring the parallel’s rich heritage–and investigating the human impulse to “create systems and then locate ourselves within them,” Myren writes on his website.
Using a state-of-the-art DSLR wouldn’t exactly jibe with the ethos of the project, so Myren’s been using a large-format 8×10 Deardorff view camera similar to what O’Sullivan would have used. He settled on the three-exposure panorama, he says, because it “perfectly unites the form and content of this project, both aesthetically and philosophically.” Plus, it does a better job of approximating a person’s field of vision at each confluence.
As of this summer, he had photographed 32 of the 52 locations, but the remaining 20 were largely in the middle of nowhere, and he was running low on funds for travel and lodging. Thankfully, he found help in another decidedly modern resource: Kickstarter. His campaign in July pulled in $17,000 dollars, giving him enough money to see the project to completion. Currently, there are only 7 sites left to photograph–4 in Illinois and 3 in Indiana–which Myren’s planning on wrapping up this winter.
Though the exact spots at which he takes the photographs may be pre-defined, making an aesthetically pleasing photo is still important to Myren. “I am there with my thoughts, my understanding of art history, U.S. history, and the desire to make a beautiful image of whatever is there,” he says.