Having researched the response to farming by a number of practitioners I considered that much of their work, probably unintentionally, romanticised both the settings and the lifestyle (here). Jean Mohr’s lone herdsman tending his cows against the magnificent backdrop of the French Alps, Erich Hartmann’s landscapes with their connotations of a drive in the country on a sunny day or Elliot Erwitt’s abstractions of black and white cows add to our knowledge or stimulate our senses but fail to capture the realities of the lifestyle or the perilous state of the industry. To continue to approach farming in this way risks presenting it as a quaint historic pastime, in essence a thing of the past. There are exceptions; John Darwell records the foot and mouth crisis in Dark Days and Bruce Davidson communicated the harshness of a herdsman’s life in the sixties.
In early spring I spent three days on two dairy farms; the first boasts fine contemporary buildings filled with well maintained equipment and nestles in a shallow valley overlooked by rolling hills, a bucolic idyll. The other comprises mismatched and dilapidated barns with pastures that straddle a busy road making day to day operations complex and frustrating. The operators are father and son, herdsmen and farmers, honest, committed and hardworking.
Even in summer there can be chill in the air at 4 a.m. but in early spring it is cold, a penetrating, relentless chill that leaves your fingers hurting, your feet numb and goes deep into your bones; the air is thick with the smell of cows, you can smell the farm from the main road a quarter of a mile away, a small lake of manure steams behind the barns. The grass isn’t growing yet so the cows are in huge sheds like Victorian railway stations and the smell intensifies as you enter the small complex of buildings. There are no milling stools or cowsmaids here, the milking parlour has become a milking shed filled with a knitting pattern of steel pipes and coloured plastic tubing.
This series attempts to capture my reactions to the environment and the farmers; the mix of traditional man and beast farming and modern technology, the smells, filth, and cold are the setting for the loneliness of a singular profession, the intimate relationship between herdsman and cows, the physicality and the slavish adherence to the repetitive routine of milking one hundred and sixty cows morning and night, seven days a week.
Visually I wanted to explore how the human figure is dwarfed by the scale of the buildings, the web of metal pipes and plastic tubing lining the working space and the huge, heavy beasts that push and barge their way into the milking shed. It is world full of repetitive processes and patterns, natural light enters from surprising angles, every surface has its own texture, the cows are monochrome, the setting technicolor, the poorly lit buildings full of contrasts.