Growing up on the banks of the Mississippi in Keokuk, Iowa, Cody Weber just wanted to get out. The town, like much of rural America, was hit hard by the decline in manufacturing. Weber watched hopes dwindle and storefronts empty out. As his friends slowly left the town, Weber joined up with “crappy band after crappy band,” and made his way around the country as a touring musician. But he always ended up back in Iowa.
Eventually, instead of resisting his home, Weber found a way to understand it. A photographer since age 14, Weber, now 28, has spent the past year and a half traversing the state, documenting its small towns for his project, Forgotten Iowa. His girlfriend, Kat Kanan, locates the places and plans the routes; traveling on the weekends from their home in Fairfield, they’ve reached about 400 of the state’s 947 towns.
When his father lost his factory job during Weber’s childhood, the family was plunged into poverty. In an essay that was picked up by Arc magazine, Weber writes: “We were ‘get your school clothes at the Salvation Army and pray to god that no kid notices it as his own’ poor. ‘No health insurance so don’t break your teeth’ poor. Poor poor. Rural poor.”
Weber recalls hearing his grandparents paint a different picture, talking about Keokuk “with such joy—like prizefighters reliving their glory days,” he says. He listened to them describe the bygone beauty of the Hotel Iowa, and all the trains that used to pass through the city and no longer do. Many people live in denial, he says, wishing for “an old reality, a manufacturing reality, that’s sadly gone.”
Until he got out on his own, Weber never left the town; he assumed that his experience in Keokuk was unique to the place. But while researching his family history, Weber began venturing to different towns, looking for buildings that his grandfather, an architect, had designed. What he found were people and places that reflected his own reality. In Arc, Weber writes:
It doesn’t matter who I meet along the way as we traverse through the wild Serengeti of dying towns gasping for air — it’s always the same thing. People with ghosts. People describing themselves by things they used to do, places they used to work, lives they used to lead. They are beaten down, tired, and increasingly hopeless in a sad state that they seem to be perpetually locked in to.
In his photographs, Weber captures scenes that remind him of home. “The backdrop of my adolescence were these old historic buildings that are abandoned, in a way; maybe only a floor or two are used for anything,” Weber says. He’s not interested in the Wal-Marts on the outskirts or the movie theaters plopped on top of felled buildings; Weber seeks out the sites that contain the past that Iowa can’t seem to let go.
But in the process, he’s found a way to connect to unique stories that are often lumped together or misunderstood, especially as the phrase “rural America” has been tossed around in political debates. In Montrose, he met a man named Hughie Tweedy, who lives on a farm his family has owned for generations. The Dakota Access Pipeline project had recently commandeered a part of his property through eminent domain. Speaking to Tweedy, Weber witnessed how political acts can become personally devastating. But he also saw pride: Tweedy took him around the property, showing Weber trees that his grandfather planted, and his own artworks made from animal bones found on the farm. “It’s an attitude I’ve found across the state,” Weber says. “People live true to themselves and what they do.”
In the towns he’s photographed, Weber has found a glimmer of a way forward. Fairfield, where he lives now, has developed a clear identity and a concise plan, centered around a localized economy. “It has its own ecosystem of commerce,” Weber says. “Rather than having one big industry that controls everything, we could turn back the clock and go back to dozens of small businesses.” The abandoned buildings Weber points his lens at, he imagines, could house the state’s future.
“You really have to venture off the interstate and go to these small towns,” Weber says, “because that’s where the soul of America is.”