Centroid Towns in the Baltimore Sun

The photographer Nate Larson is on a quest to, as he puts it, “get closer to the real.”

In 2014, Larson, 40, embarked on a project he expects will take him years to complete — photographing life in the roughly two dozen cities and towns that since 1790 have served as U.S. population medians.

Each decade, census officials designate a residential center, the point through which a north-south line and an east-west line would cross, dividing the total number of Americans in half. In 1790, that epicenter was Chestertown, and each decade since, it has drifted to the southwest. In 1800, the midpoint was in Ellicott City; after that it left Maryland for good. By 2020, the median is projected to be near Hartville, Mo.

Initially, the westward pull resulted from the nation’s rapid geographic expansion. Now, Larson thinks, it’s caused by the influx of mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants into such states as Texas and California.

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“The current administration wants to add a citizenship question to the census,” he said. “If that goes through, I’m curious whether that will mean that the center of the population shifts farther east.”

Larson, a member of the photography faculty at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, has been a finalist for the Artscape Prize twice before.

He began by visiting each epicenter briefly, and has spent up to a month in four. He gets to know the landscape and residents before creating intimate documentary-style images. (Some aerial shots are filmed with a drone.) Eventually, he will also collect oral histories. The Sondheim show includes photographs taken in seven median cities, including Ellicott City.

“The current administration has shaken up my notion of our national identity,” he said.

”I wanted to get the real sense of the country — not that there’s any one ‘real.’ I’m trying to understand what America is in 2018 and how the current presidential administration does or does not reflect that.”