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Photographer Don House captures passion for the Ozarks in new book of essays

by Becca Martin-Brown | March 19, 2023 at 1:00 a.m.
“Letters to Dan: A Philosophical Guide to the Ozarks” will be unveiled at an author talk and book signing from 2 to 4 p.m. March 26 at the Fayetteville Public Library. Books will be available for purchase. Additional book events are planned at libraries around the region. (Courtesy Image)

Don House's online bio says:

Born in California and raised in Texas, Germany, Austria, Missouri, and Michigan, photographer Don House attended the University of Michigan and Wayne State University before being drawn to the rugged isolation and unique character of the Ozark Mountains. For over 30 years, he has photographed the human and natural landscape of the region. Known for his powerful and rich black-and-white imagery, his work has been featured in publications as diverse as Boy's Life, Forbes, Women's World, Arkansas Life, and The Wall Street Journal, and is collected and exhibited throughout the country.

What it does not say is that House is as much an artist with words, as he proves with his latest book, "Letters to Dan: A Philosophical Guide to the Ozarks," just released. The Ozark Society has selected the book as the recipient of the Sassafras Award for Excellence in Environmental Writing, "established to encourage innovative writing and new perspectives on conservation by empowering new voices and expressions of contemporary experiences with the natural world we inhabit."

An author talk and book signing is scheduled for 2-4 p.m. March 26 at the Fayetteville Public Library. Here's what House had to say about "Letters to Dan," his career and the Ozarks.

Q. What or who inspired this book?

A. I've been working on this for years really, without realizing it. Almost all of these essays began as letters to an old friend -- Dan Kasztelan -- a photographer here in Fayetteville in the 1980s, who left to become a Quaker minister (although they may not use that term) up in Ohio. I would write lengthy letters to him, but he never responded; he wasn't a letter writer. He appreciated mine, and when he would return to Arkansas every five years or so, he would know everything I had written to him, and he would answer in person. This worked well for me, because I need someone to write to, literally. I still do this. If I am writing an essay about an experience in the Buffalo Wilderness Area for example, at the top of the page, I will put someone's name, and I will write the whole thing to them, whether they ever see it or not. It has to be someone to whom I can say anything, in whatever language I want, including some of the foulest and angriest you can imagine. It has to be someone I trust completely, or I can't write well at all. Perhaps every writer has tricks like this.

Q. Tell me about the process of creating it? Did the photos exist first and call for the essays? How long was the creation process?

A. In this case, the writing came first. In fact, initially, I didn't know if I would include photographs at all, or if I did, perhaps only as thumbnail design elements. This may surprise people who know me primarily as a photographer. It was the editor -- Marvin Schwartz -- who convinced me to rethink that, and I'm glad he did. And, with few exceptions, these images have never been seen. This is still primarily a book of writing rather than photography, but I think the photos set a nice tone for the essay to follow. And it was surprising to me how strongly I felt about the writing. I was much more willing to have a photograph cropped in the editing process than to have a word changed.

Q. Way back when, what inspired you to become a photographer? In what ways did it turn out how you expected it to? And in what ways did it turn out to be an entirely different journey?

A. It always comes down to people. A friend once described me as "disgusted with the human race, but in love with every individual I meet." There is truth in that. I began my interest in photography as a way of recording people around me, telling their stories in that fraction of a second that the shutter is open. So many photographers of my generation, and before, will describe their personal pivotal event in the darkroom when a photo materializes in the developer tray, and they're hooked for life. I had the same experience, but not so much just an image, but a human face looking up at me through the chemicals, a face that told me everything I wanted to know about that person. Decades later, that still is my goal when photographing people, or even landscape: an attempt to convey the character and personality -- the essence -- of what is before me. The photographer Russell Cothren uses the word responsibility, and it fits. I might add honesty. Whether it is a woman swimming across a mysterious body of water, or a pile of firewood with a sold sign, or a couple sitting in a chair on my canvas, as I lean down and peer into the viewfinder, I am looking for the same thing before I release the shutter.

Q. Tell me about some of your favorite places captured in the book -- and why they are?

A. You may notice that with only a couple of exceptions, I do not specify exactly where I am. I only mention, perhaps, that I am in the Upper Buffalo Wilderness Area. I feel very protective of the Buffalo River, and I'm concerned about its future, primarily because of an enormous increase in visitation, and massive campaigns by the State to bring in outside visitors and money, campaigns that so often show images of the Buffalo River watershed. In the epilogue to this book, I rant a little about this subject. I am a member of the Ozark Society, that organization that was formed 60 years ago to keep the river from being dammed and turned into a lake. It may have seemed that the river was saved and the fight over, but it continues. Landfills, hog farms, sewer plants, and now increased visitation. The Ozark Society has tirelessly fought one threat after another over the decades. I don't want to add to the problem, so I don't give directions or GPS coordinates. The greatest pleasure is in the discovery, so I describe my experiences and hope the reader is inspired to find her own, slowly, with lots of beautiful distractions along the way.

Q. What makes the Ozarks ... special? Magical? Unique? And why should people understand that unique quality?

A. I use those terms magical and unique often when describing the Ozarks, and spiritual as well, although I don't attribute anything supernatural to those words. I think it has to do with the pure physical beauty of the place, the somewhat difficult access, and the absolute volume of public land compared to other States. It's still possible to get lost in the several of our literal wilderness areas, or to float a river and see not a single human being all day. That is an experience that is becoming rarer and rarer throughout our nation. That ability to isolate, to have time to ponder, is critical to my mental and physical health. As John Muir once said: "I'm losing the precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news."

I think he may have been on to something.

Q. Will the book be available to purchase at the library? Do you have any other signing events we should include?

A. The book will be available for sale at the library, and through the Ozark Society website,, or through the UA Press at To get a signed and personalized book, folks can email me at, and I'll mail a copy. I'm also scheduling book signings at libraries around the area. I'll keep a schedule on my website:

  photo  Don House is best known for his portraits — usually in black and white — of the people of the Ozarks. This time, in his new book, he's painted pictures of the land he loves in words and images. (Courtesy Photo/Sabine Schmidt)

Print Headline: In new book, Don House captures portraits of the Ozarks in words


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