The objective of assignment 2, “Visa Versa” is to create a themed body of work that mixes portraits taken outside on location (street) and inside (studio). As well as including inside and outdoor shots I have used the idea of “visa versa” to juxtapose a father and son who manage separate, organic, dairy farms in Dorset and Wiltshire.
It was surprisingly difficult to find portrait series based on farming. A number of respected practitioners have touched upon the subject (here) but few that I have found have developed their work as series. The photographers commissioned by the Resettlement Administration (i) in the 1930’s documented the farms and farmers of the American southern states and Walker Evans went on to produce a remarkable series based on three Alabama farming families as part of his collaboration with James Agee for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1) (here). Jean Mohr and John Berger, who collaborated on a number of books that reference Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, included a portrait series of an Alpine herdsman in Another Way of Telling (here) which became a strong reference point for my series.
Evans and Mohr underline two important lessons. Firstly that documentary portraiture is inherently invasive; Agee was conflicted by the nature of Evan’s photographic process (3) leading him to question the morality of their assignment. The subject invests their trust in someone who was previously a stranger; they have agreed to be photographed but this licence is limited putting the onus on the photographer to know where the line is drawn. Evans allowed his subjects to retain their dignity, allowing mothers to scrub-up their children and clean their homes (4) before photographing them. I shared and discussed my photographs with my main subject before using them; this was an interesting and revealing event and one that I intend to repeat; understanding how the subject and his close family interpreted the portraits challenged my own readings.
Mohr’s lesson is that some people are defined by a combination of their landscape and profession. In A Fortunate Man (3) and his series on Marcel the herdsman (2) he positions his subjects inside their environment and their work because without this perspective we are far from understanding their unique identities.
There are a number of more general reference points for my project including Julian Germaine (here), Kaylyn Deveney (here) and Nigel Shafran (here) but Evans and Mohr became my strongest influences not just because they document farmers but more because both men understood that they were photographing people engaged in a way of life that was being swept away by the relentless march of progress; they recognised that their subjects were anachronisms but they photographing because they were unique rather than to record some romantic vision of rurality. Neither men were crusading documentarists in the style of, say, Lewis Hine but Evans was highly sensitive to America’s ambivalence towards its own history and to the state of small towns and rural areas and Mohr recognised that the world is a poorer place if all its citizens conform to an urban ideal.
Two Fortunate Men
Greg Kellaway and his son Lewis operate two comparatively small, organic, dairy farms forty miles apart on the Dorset Wiltshire borders. Greg is a first generation farmer and although his mother is from farming stock and “always kept a cow or two” when he was a boy, he has built his business from scratch. He is a tenant farmer but has recently begun to buy land of his own and has thirty eight acres of prime pasture that are the beginnings of the “family” farm.
Greg keeps his young cattle in barns on this land but it is too far from his milking parlour for the dairy herd. He comes here every day to feed the animals, often visiting the bottom of the valley where there is a small pond that has attracted a pair of wild ducks. There are also badgers here but his herd is TB free and he makes the point that if these healthy badgers are culled disease carriers could move in so the huge badger sets on the edge of the woods are safe for now.
Twice a day the herd is brought to the milking parlour; for Lewis whose farm is either sides of a main road this entails a 4 a.m. start and the intricate manoeuvring of cattle between holding areas and the parlour; in Lewis’ eyes his father has an easy life as his farm is better organised with the herd adjacent to his parlour so he only starts at 4.50 a.m. Lewis’ mother Jen said this photograph, captured as the rain drove across the yard, “shows what a hard farm that is. All that shit.”
“Can you recognise every cow ?” I asked Lewis; “Not by sight, but I can recognise them all from their udders”. Every cow is handled, checked for mastitis which, if found, might require antibiotics making their milk unsaleable. The cows have distinct personalities, some kick out, some are spooked by their own shadows, some push to the front of the queue and some hang back. Greg has strong opinions about all of them, “five-five-two is a scabby cow, wants shooting, a horrible cow.”
Lewis is twenty-one, running his own farm, implementing his own ideas. Greg is immensely proud of his son but they are highly competitive, “Dad just produces white water, because that’s what his contract requires, whereas I’m producing creamy milk”. His hands are descriptive, strong and dirty; Jen saw this representation as “dirty, scruffy and old; yet Lewis is young”, which neatly sums up the man.
Cows produce milk and shit. After milking and as the sun rises the hard surfaces of the yards are swept clean with every drop of this secondary product manoeuvred by man and machine into a vast pond ready to be sprayed onto the fields. As organic farmers this is the only fertiliser they can use and there is certainly no shortage of it.
Lewis is a cheerful man, full of good humour and happy to chat about any subject you please but get him talking about farming and he becomes intense; his work defines everything about him; watching him at work was a study of concentration as he often became completely detached from everything except his cows. Greg summed up his son when he described this photograph as “Solemn. A hard life.”
Jen simply said of this picture “Real work”. From four in the morning until past seven in the evening they are on their feet, often engaged in hard physical labour. Jen worries that Lewis forgets to eat. It is a lifestyle suited to a strong partnership but, for now, Lewis is single and forging his future on his own with a little help from a hundred and fifty cows, his dog and a hugely supportive family.
Jean Mohr understood that Marcel, his herdsman, was part of a biographical landscape and inextricably linked to his herd. Greg and Lewis are from the same mould. They love their work and the symbiotic bond with their animals is, at times, uncanny. Lewis has one cow that will only enter the milking parlour if he goes to collect her. At one level they are pragmatically hard about their herd, dismissing the need to put down a cow as part of the natural way of things but at another level there is a sympathetic and sensitive relationship that goes far beyond the economic.
The desperate decline of the British dairy industry (ii) suggests that the Kellaways might become as anachronistic as Mohr’s alpine herdsman or his country doctor. Our increasingly urbanised society exhibits the same ambivalence to rural issues that Evans saw in America in the 1930s; politicians, elected by urban populations, appear unable to connect calcium deficiency in teenagers or childhood obesity with the imperative of supporting an industry that has the will and the way to produce high quality unprocessed food. We might wake up one day soon and wonder where all the cows have gone and ask why the small, enclosed fields that define our landscape have disappeared; we will probably blame it on the farmers as we tip soya milk onto our cereal.
Notes on Text
(i) Formed in 1935 the Resettlement Administration (RA) was the forerunner of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) which was established in 1937. In 1935 Roy E. Stryker became the head of the RA’s Historical Section and once the organisation was renominated in 1937 he established the photographic project that endeavoured to document the issues of the farmers they were trying to help. Some of the greatest American documentary photographers worked for Stryker and the FSA including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee.
(ii) In January 2016 the average price of milk at the farm gate was just under 24 pence a litre, down by 10 pence from the equivalent price in 2014 and 2 pence less than in 2008. The industry exists in an unhealthy and ultimately doomed market, the polar opposite of the ideal, with a small number of buyers and a large number of suppliers; the price of milk is decided by half a dozen supermarkets who have historically reduced the price they are willing to pay by the value of European Union subsidies that were designed to top up the farmer’s income; if the subsidies are increased the price of milk at the farm gate falls. In effect tax payers are subsidising the profits of the big supermarkets while many farmers sell at a price that is significantly below their production costs. It is unsurprising that over the last ten years two thirds of the UK’s dairy farms have slaughtered or sold their herds. The remaining 10,000 farms face the choice between soldiering on getting deeper into debt, becoming mega-dairies where hundreds of cows are kept indoors pumped full of medicines to keep them healthy or staying small and switching to producing organic milk which commands a marginally higher price. The organic market remains limited in scale so projecting these trends into the future sometime in the next ten years we will drive out of our cities and wonder what ever happened to cows and the small enclosed fields that used to define our landscape.
(1) Agee, James and Evans, Walker (1941) Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (First Mariner Books Edition 2001). Boston: Houghton Miffin Company
(2) Berger, John & Mohr, Jean (1982) Another Way of Telling: A Possible Theory of Photography. London: Bloomsbury
(3) Berger John & Mohr, Jean (1967) A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor. (Originally published by Penguin Books in 1967; this edition published by Canongate Books 2016) London: Canongate
(3) Graf, Catharina Image and Text at Work: ‘Let Us Now Praise famous Men’ and the Photographic Essay (accessed at Academia 29.3.16) – https://www.academia.edu/3677714/Image_and_Text_at_Work_Let_Us_Now_Praise_Famous_Men_and_the_Photographic_Essay
(4) Austgen, Suzanne. Let Us Now Praise famous Men: Agee and Evans’ Great Experiment (accessed at History Hanover 29.3.16) – http://history.hanover.edu/hhr/hhr93_5.html