The Vermont Folklife Center (www.vermontfolklifecenter.org) in Middlebury has a photography show that includes myself, Richard Brown and John Miller. It is called Visions of Place and attempts to show how our photographs reflect the changing sense of what Vermont was, is, or will become.
Each of us has written a self analysis of what our photographs mean, what our statement is, etc. etc. frankly, I never thought of it but there’s always something we want to say. I only understood that recently while looking at some of my Vermont books. So this is what I have written, which will be on the wall of this show that opens at the Folklife Center in Middlebury June 10 and closes September 3.
Why did I buy a good camera with the insurance my mother gave me after my guns were stolen?
Darned if I know. I was 17. That was 59 years ago and I’m still at it. I first photographed the hillside farmers in Weston, my hometown. I liked them. Honest and look you in the eye. Good wit and storytellers. Curious. Intelligent. Observant. Love for the land. Vermont is divided into two: the hill people and the valley people. I am a hill person.
Photography followed me, or I should say it dragged me along, through University, Europe, the US Army, New York City and assignments around the world. Photography told me what to do with my life, told me I had to learn to write.
Eventually my soul took me from a high-charged life back to Vermont. I had teachers along the way—The University of Toronto Camera Club, Yousuf Karsh, the Signal Corps, the editors and photographers who I worked with at LIFE magazine. And then there was my own damned persistence that I learned from Vermont’s hillside farmers.
I made black and white images. Oh, I took color. Lots of it. That was a cash crop. But my love was the depth of feeling found in a black and white photograph, particularly when you read the history of a face.
I always photographed Vermonters. Rarely made prints, just stuck the negatives in a file cabinet. Made a print or two. That was until the mid 1980’s and one of my New York editors berated me for not taking responsibility for my talent, no matter how big or small.
So I put together the book Vermont People. Had half enough portraits and of course I had interviews too. I photographed a bunch more. That was in 1988 and 1989. Every publisher in Vermont turned down my book, because there was no color and it had portraits of Vermonters of no particular importance. I self published and increased the mortgage of my house.
Sold the first edition of 3,000 in six weeks. Went on to sell another 12,000 just in Vermont and published two more coffee table books on Vermont and its people. Vermont People is now sold out and I’m looking for a way to publish a new edition.
What am I trying to say with my photographs? Never really thought about it until I was going through my Vermont books and I realized that almost 98% of the people I photographed are self employed—farmers, loggers, sawyers, craftspeople, store owners, plumbers, carpenters, painters and freelancers. They rely on their wits, intelligence, common sense and hard work. They are independent, free, close to the land. They have few pretensions, are happy with their life, are in tune with the seasons and make a strong friend. They are frugal.
These Vermonters¬—these independent souls—are salvage. The banks shun most of them because, although they have strong assets in land, houses and honesty, they don’t have cash flow. If they end the year with too much income, they’ll expense it.
Whom do banks cozy up to? Any person with a guaranteed check, a pension and health plan and the back up security of a corporation, say IBM, Green Mountain Coffee, insurance companies, the layered bureaucracy of town and state government workers. Banks prefer that the people to whom they extend credit be pasteurized.
And what about the Vermonters that made this state what it is? As one writer commented about the people in my books, who are my friends:
“They are an endangered species, and Vermont is all used up.”