In Another way of Telling (1) John Berger and Jean Mohr have created a book of photographs about the lives of mountain peasants. For Mohr it brings together seven years of photographing the farming families of Haute-Savoie which are presented with pictures of similar bucolic scenes from around the world and woven together to create an imaginary narrative whose central character is an old peasant women reminiscing about her life. The end result is one of the largest and most visually rich narratives I have seen and provides the backdrop to John Berger’s essay on “A Possible Theory of Photography” and Mohr’s visual and written essays on the ambiguity of the medium.
I want to look here at just one aspect of this book, the remainder deserving far deeper study at a later date. For five years in the early part of this century I lived in Abruzzo, the least populated region of Italy where the traces of an ancient peasant life style are still visible, where shepherds still take their flocks to the high mountain plateau for the summer, a few diehard potters fire their product in wood fuelled kilns and villagers attempt to achieve self sufficiency on small plots of steep, hard land that produces rich olive oil, succulent tomatoes and provides grazing for a few sheep.
During my time in Abruzzo I endeavoured to document these fading traces; the characters engaged in these rural practices are undoubtedly the last generation to do so, their children and grandchildren having moved to the coast or to Italy’s large cities leaving the mountain villages sparsely populated as the cottages become empty or are converted as weekend retreats for urban Italians. If I had been more eloquent I might have said as John Berger has ” (I) wanted to tell the peasants’ story before they were gone from the earth.” In this, and at a general level, Berger, Mohr and I share a common interest but when I started to work on assignment 2 it became obvious that our subject matter was more specifically connected.
For assignment 2 I am working with two English West Country farmers, a father and son who manage separate and, in many ways, quite different dairy farms, they are herdsmen. The farms are small and organic so feel far removed from the highly industrialised farming that I had expected to find in 21st century England. In Another Way of Telling Mohr has included a short photo story, Marcel or The Right to Choose, a portrait of an elderly herdsman who lives and works alone in the Alpage at an altitude of 1,500 metres with his herd of fifty cows. Mohr spent two days with Marcel capturing a series that has become a key reference for my own project.
Mohr provides a small amount of text to support the series and it was this text that helped me realise that, even though my project is more modest and certainly less accomplished, we were dealing with similar issues. On Mohr’s first visit he captures the old man going about his work and then returns a week later to show him the results. Marcel is obviously unimpressed, pointing out that a close up of a cow’s eye is “no subject for a photo” (1 – p24) and that a portrait of a person should include the subject’s head and shoulders, not just part of the face. I haven’t reached the stage where I have taken pictures back to show my subjects, Greg and Lewis, but I am expecting similar reactions. Greg was very disappointed that I kept taking photographs of the wrong cows and frustrated by my inability to tell the difference between a “journey-man” animal and a prize beast. My first shoot was taken to a sound track of advice on appropriate subjects. I report this, not in any way as a complaint, it was part of the learning curve of working closely with a single subject uninterrupted for twelve hours and to be photographing their specialist subject as an outsider. It helped me develop a frame work for the final project in which I want to not only juxtapose the father and son but collect and record their reactions to the final photographs.
Mohr’s point is that even the portrait of a single subject is ambiguous. Berger argues that this inherent ambiguity can be hidden or increased by the contradictions that arise from the meeting of the interests of the photographer, the photographed, the viewer and the ones using the image (1 – p9). In Mohr’s series of Marcel the most compelling portrait is where Marcel comes prepared with clean clothes, or at least to the waist down, and brushed hair to pose for his definitive portrait, he has manipulated the image by his choice of clothes and his pose and achieves a picture to which he responds “And now my great grandchildren will know what sort of man I was”.
As was the case with A Fortunate Man (reviewed here) Mohr’s pictures only show a glimpse of Marcel’s identity, to learn more we would need to turn to John Berger again and read ”The Time of the Cosmonauts” (i) whose central character is based on Marcel. But, this is no more likely to be complete than Mohr’s pictures so, for now, we can only take the twenty-two photographs included in Another Way of Telling as our reference point.
Mohr has presented this series in a carefully devised sequence; as in A Fortunate Man he opens with the contextual landscape but alternates wider views with close-ups of Marcel so we are introduced to his landscape and the main subject simultaneously. Like Abruzzo the Haute-Savoie is hard land, steep mountain pasture, scree slopes and rock strewn valleys, a rugged land breeding tough men and women. The cows are central to Marcel’s life so feature strongly in photographs that range from the close-up that so disappointed Marcel to the herd grazing in the forest, moving between his home and the high pasture, being milked and in the cowshed. The landscape and the herd are the fabric that holds the series together and jointly provide the context for the man. Marcel is shown in his home, at his meal and with his grandson but most often with the herd. The herd defines him as a man, it denotes his status in his community and his purpose in life.
In my project I am struggling to put my subjects at enough ease to connect with the camera, lifting the camera is a signal for averting their gaze so I am encouraged that few of Mohr’s pictures include eye contact with Marcel. He is getting on with his day and Mohr is capturing these actions; having now spent two days on farms photographing the herdsmen I can relate to this. Their job is defined by the needs of a large number of animals who understand and know their routines and expect them to be followed, the men that tend them have no option to leave any part of their job until tomorrow, or to have a lie-in and catch the next train today; any distractions to their day or deviations from their timetable just adds time to an already long and very physical day. To photograph this profession means fitting in around them and catching the opportunities as they arise. Posing is not part of the deal.
Notes on Text
(i) Which I have not read but that is reference by Gerald Marzorati who makes the connection after he meets Marcel when interviewing Berger. (2)
(1) Berger, John & Mohr, Jean (1982) Another Way of Telling: A Possible Theory of Photography. London: Bloomsbury
(2) Marzorati, Gerald (1987) Living and Writing the Peasant Life (accessed at the New York Times 28.3.16) – http://www.nytimes.com/1987/11/29/magazine/living-and-writing-the-peasant-life.html?pagewanted=all