​Scott Strazzante on finding "Common Ground"

Scott Strazzante on finding "Common Ground" 03:00

Farm families and suburban familes actually share a lot of common ground -- and photographer Scott Strazzante has the pictures to prove it:

On July 2, 2002, Harlow Cagwin, a month shy of his 80th birthday, watched as the farmhouse that had been his home since childhood was reduced to rubble.

On July 2, 2002, Harlow Cagwin witnessed the demolition of the house in which he'd lived for 75 years. Scott Strazzante/"Common Ground"

The day marked the end of Cagwin's decades of labor and, also, the conclusion of my eight-year photographic journey with Harlow, his wife, Jean, and their herd of Angus beef cattle.

I first set foot on the Cagwins' 114-acre farm in the spring of 1994, to snap some photos for a newspaper story about people who raised farm animals in suburban Chicago. But as I photographed Harlow and Jean, something told me I would return.

And I did return, again and again.

Over the years, there were many stories . . . about the changing landscape, about aging, about the economy, and, of course, about the disappearing family farm.

When urban sprawl finally forced the Cagwins to sell their farm to a developer, I thought that would be the final chapter.

I was wrong about that.

In early 2007, when I presented my farm essay to a photo class, one of my students shyly raised her hand. She told me she and her family lived in the Willow Walk subdivision, which was built on the land the Cagwins had once farmed.

Where the Cagwins corralled cattle, suburban parents corral their children for a neighborhood Easter Egg hunt. Scott Strazzante/"Common Ground"

By week's end, I stood on a cul de sac called Cinnamon Court, as Amanda Grabenhofer, her husband Ed, and their four children joined other young families for an Easter egg hunt.

At the time, I wasn't sure my photographs of one family's suburban life had anything in common with those of two senior citizen farmers, but I was glad to be back on a piece of land I knew so well.

On my second visit, I photographed Amanda and Ed's oldest son, Ben, as he wrestled with his cousin, C.J., on the front lawn of their home.

There was something about it that seemed familiar.

Then it hit me.

I went into my archive and pulled out a photo of Harlow Cagwin struggling to lasso a day-old calf.

I put the two images side by side. And something magical happened.

I had discovered their common ground.

Scott Strazzante, from "Common Ground"

An image of the two Grabenhofer daughters watching for their father's return home from work brought back memories of Harlow Cagwin's sister, Sandy, visiting her childhood bedroom on the day the family farm was razed.

Scott Strazzante, from "Common Ground"

Caitlyn Grabenhofer's playful drawing on a red cup reminded me of a photograph of one of the Cagwin's cows, standing alone in a winter snowstorm.

Scott Strazzante, from "Common Ground"

One family's prayer of thanks for their barbeque dinner evoked another family saying grace.

Grabenhofer home in Willow Walk subdivision in Lockport, IL on Saturday, June 2, 2007. (Chicago Tribune Photo by Scott Strazzante) Scott Strazzante, from "Common Ground"

Together, these paired images tell a story that is much more powerful than either story alone.


On a gray spring day in 2008, the Cagwins visited the Willow Walk subdivision. Standing in her driveway, just feet from where the old farmhouse used to stand, Amanda Grabenhofer thanked Harlow and Jean for their gift to her family.

Tears flowed.

We may think we live worlds apart -- that one world and one generation ends, and another, new one begins.

But we are all much more alike than we are different, and share a common bond, a common experience -- and common ground.

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