As previously mentioned I initially envisioned assignment 2 to be a series strongly referencing Julian Germain’s Every Minute …. (reviewed here), Kaylynn Deveney’s The Day-to-Life of Albert Hastings (reviewed here) and Nigel Shafran’s various portrait series of his wife Ruth (reviewed here) but my subject became unavailable. This was a slight set-back as I had invested time looking at Germain, Deveney and Shafran and researched how other photographers had used the living room as a studio (here) but no doubt this will all come in useful. After some thought, I approached a father and son who operate separate west country farms and they agreed to become the subjects for the project.
Farming and Farmers
This opened a new line of research to consider how photographers had approached farming as a subject (here). This was an interesting exercise that suggested that, whilst practitioners such as David Hurn and Chris Steele-Perkins exhibit a deep understanding of the rural environment few photographers have built series based on farms and farmers. I also felt that the way farming was treated tended to romanticise what is in reality a tough way to make a living. I don’t see this as a conscious action on the part of practioners like Bruce Davidson or Guy Le Querrec and may simply be related to their work having been undertaken in the 1970s but the overall impression is of a quaint rural pastime rather than a modern business.
Investigating rural subjects led me to John Berger and Jean Mohr’s A Fortunate Man (here) which I wanted to look at in the context of constructing a portrait series of a single individual going about their normal work. This is a lovely little book with Mohr’s photographs and Berger’s prose bouncing off each other in a truly collaborative way. I considered how Mohr’s photographs would have worked if they were isolated from Berger’s text and whilst we would certainly know less about the subject we would still be presented with a insightful and meaningful portrait that would, at least, rank alongside more contemporary single subject series. In terms of approach the main difference between this and, say, Julian Germain’s For Every Minute is that apart from the contextual landscape pictures, all the photographs are of the doctor and his patients which gives the overall series a Life Magazine look and feel. A more contemporary approach would perhaps have included photographs of the tools of his trade or the ephemera of notices, prescriptions and the like.
Whilst on the trail of Jean Mohr I found his portrait series of an alpine herdsman in Another Way of Telling (here), another collaboration with John Berger but one where Mohr presents his pictures and a short explanation apart from Berger’s text. Mohr 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 the herdsman so we are introduced to his landscape and the main subject simultaneously. 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 close-ups 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.
Finally I took a careful look at Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (here) which John Berger cites as a reference for A Fortunate Man. Despite dating from 1936 I was reminded that great photography and thoughtful curating is timeless. Considering all these references together reminds me that nothing is new and having noted that Mohr’s series in A Fortunate Man lacked contextual detail and therefore appeared non-contemporary it was intriguing to see Evans’ using boots and his subjects’ family photographs as part of a series thirty years previously. Evans is the master of what he called his “documentary style” and his ability to sequence photographs to build upon each other is arguably second to none.
Working With the Subjects
My subjects, father and son Greg and Lewis Kellaway are dairy farmers operating separate farms in Dorset and Wiltshire. To complete the project I conducted a day long shoot at each farm returning for a second shoot at Greg’s farm and to show him the first batch of photographs. I would liked to have spent another day with Lewis but the project has reached, not a conclusion, but an ideal point at which to pause and take stock.
To meet the requirements of the assignment I worked both in and out of doors and used a mixture of natural light, artificial light and flash guns when working inside. Milking starts at 05:00 on Greg’s farm and 04:00 on Lewis’ so there was plenty of opportunity to work with artificial and flash lighting before the sun came up.
Whilst not shy neither man was comfortable with being photographed and Greg only relaxed on my second visit and even then still tended to look away when he saw the camera being raised. Lewis was a little more relaxed and my wife accompanied me on that shoot so in many of the photographs he has momentarily forgotten about the camera whilst in conversation with my wife.
As a result it was a struggle to put my subjects at enough ease to connect with the camera, lifting the camera was a signal for averting their gaze so I was encouraged that few of Mohr’s pictures include eye contact with his herdsman, Marcel. He is getting on with his day and Mohr is capturing those actions. Having now spent three days on the Kellaway farms photographing the herdsmen I can relate to this. Their job is defined by the needs of a large number of animals who 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; 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.
Sharing the Photographs
I have great respect for any man who rises at 4 or 4:30 a.m. seven days a week, engages in hard physical work that requires great sensitivity and awareness towards the welfare of his animals, only finishing at 7 or 8pm. It was important that their cooperation on this project was not rewarded by embarrassing them in any way so I was keen to hear their reactions to my first selection of photographs. Unfortunately it was impractical for Lewis to join us for the review so I am planning to meet up with him in a few weekend’s time but I was able to sit down in the farm kitchen and go through a set of prints with Greg, his wife Jen, their daughter Lara and his mother Grace.
I have included their reactions as a separate post as they are very much part of the output of the project but it was pleasing that, on balance, they like the pictures believing that they honestly reflect the farmers’ lives. We engaged in a lively debate on alternative meanings; I inevitably read them differently to the farming family but there were also significantly different readings between themselves.
This project could have formed the basis of the next assignment which deals with an outsider becoming an insider because I had only ever met Greg once and very briefly before my first shoot and had never met Lewis before. I obviously started as an outsider and certainly have only moved marginally towards and can never be an insider but I started this project with next to no knowledge of dairy herds and can now at least ask the occasional sensible question.