Portraits of Vermont Farm Women
Editor's Note: Peter Miller's portraits of Vermont Farm Women will be exhibited at both the Vermont Center for Photography and Hooker-Dunham Theater & Gallery during June.
"When you're cleaning other peoples' toilets, you have time to think about what you really want to do," says Annette Smith of Blue Beech Farm in an interview with Peter Miller, author of Vermont Farm Women (Silver Print Press, 2002). Smith is a sustainable farmer and activist who is one of 31 Vermont farm women photographed and interviewed by Miller. She quit her job cleaning houses in the Boston area and bought her own Vermont farm.
Miller's book -- its text and its clear-eyed black and white photographs -- is a testament to the admiration this photographer has for his subjects. Snapped in moments of resting between long hours of farmwork, Miller's portraits are lasting tributes to strong women making a living from the land by choice, not necessarily by birth. Their weathered faces retain the beauty of furrowed lifelines, and their hands are unabashedly chafed and calloused. There is no artifice in their gaze or stance. Some are cradling piglets, some leaning on shovels, checking on emus, milking cows, gathering eggs and logging with teams of draft horses. And in one portrait, full-blown pregnancy does not stop one farmer from shifting gears on her tractor.
Miller's craft has evolved from years of working for Life Magazine until 1964. His knowledge of black and white photography is seen in the play between shadow and light on each farmer's face, her animals, gardens and barns. The farmhouses and farmyards are all a part of each woman's portrait -- the farmscape inextricably entwined in the heart of the farmer. There is a cow sniffing Queen Anne's lace in midsummer, chickens convening in a barnyard, Belgian horses pulling logs. A tractor in a farmyard, a light-filtering corner of a loosely boarded barn or a lip-curling horse are companion portraits to the women in their daily working environment.
In Miller's portrait of Kelly von Trapp, joy emanates from her face as she milks one of her cows by hand, while Chester dairy farmer Lisa Kaiman muses in an interview with Miller: "I love milking. When I'm not milking, I'm dreaming about it. It's calming. Relaxing. It gets in your blood and you can't get it out. Maybe it is the tempo of the swish, swish, swish of the milk." The bold truth of the photographs and the words of these women says everything about the earthy intrigue of farming and animal husbandry. It is no wonder that the largest group of people buying farms today is women, while thirteen percent of Vermont farms are currently owned by women.
Deb Ravenell, a logger at Sterling Mt. Farm is a wonderful story of one woman's quest. She tells Miller, "I can remember the teacher asking all of the students in the class what they wanted to be when they grew up. I wanted to make a living with the land." She remembered a classmate responding, "You can't do that anymore." Even children years ago knew that farmers were an endangered species. Miller captures her look of rapture as she handles her Belgian horses in a logging exercise.
Windham County portraits of sustainable farming include Janet Bailey of Fair Winds Farm in Brattleboro embracing a hen in one strong arm as she holds her bounty of eggs in the other. In another stunning use of shadow-and-light portraiture, Amanda Ellis-Thurber of Lilac Ridge Farm, West Brattleboro, is pictured with her face shadowed by a wide straw hat not quite large enough to hide her wide smile. The portraits and stories collected here relay the graceful lives of women making hard-scrabble farms into sustaining homesteads, proving that a living can be eked out of the land with joy, passion and hard work.
A self-taught photographer, Miller moved to Weston, Vermont in 1948, when he met many farm women in his rural neighborhood. From an early age, his apparent admiration for farm women grew through direct contact. In fact, the first portrait in his book shows early photographs of Rowena Austin, a farm woman and neighbor of Miller's in Weston. These early photographs link his early encounters with farm women to this current body of work. Using the starkness of black and white photography, he keeps the portraiture in the realm of real life persevered in the New England landscape. These color-free prints lend their own pearly luminescence as they document the vivid stories of farm women living simply and in harmony with the seasons of the working Vermont landscape.
The photographs from Peter Miller's book "Vermont Farm Women" will be on exhibit at two galleries for the month of June: the Vermont Center for Photography, 49 Flat Street, and the Hooker-Dunham Theater & Gallery, down the alley and downstairs at 139 Main Street. This collection of 31 black and white photographs is part of a tour which will raise money for the Vermont Farm Women Fund, providing resources to allow farm women to achieve their farming vision and to support the stewardship of the land.
Opening receptions are scheduled during Brattleboro's Gallery Walk on Friday, June 6, from 5 to 8 pm at both venues. Gallery hours: Vermont Center for Photography -- Fridays, 5 to 8 pm, and Saturdays, noon to 4 pm; Hooker-Dunham Theater & Gallery -- during events and generally Monday through Friday, 10 am to 4 pm, and by appointment.
Copyright 2003, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont