Hill farm photos

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(HOST) The hard work of Vermont’s hill farmers can be seen in the open fields and pastoral vistas of this state. Commentator Tom Slayton says that a photography exhibit currently at the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury gives an insight into that vanishing way of life.

(SLAYTON) Black and white photography, often thought of as the poor cousin of color, is actually a subtle and demanding medium. And Vermont photographer Richard Brown is a master of the art. His show, “Echoes of the Past: last of the Hill Farms,” is on display now at the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, and it should be seen by everyone who wants to know Vermont.

Brown has been shooting photos here for more than thirty years. He is probably better known for his lush color photos of gardens and flowers and his striking color landscape shots of the Northeast Kingdom.

The black and white photos now on display at the Fairbanks Museum are a private project that Richard Brown undertook in the 1960s and 70s, when he realized that the small hill farms of that region were quietly going out of existence. He knew that he was recording the ending of a way of life. His photos show us a Vermont that is all but extinct: the small farms of upland Vermont.

It was a world shaped by endless cycles of hard physical work, a world that would find the abundance we enjoy today unimaginable, yet a world with its own dignity, rewards, and beauty.

There is obvious beauty in several of the landscapes in these photos. The huge print that opens the show, “Approaching Storm,” is both subtle and powerful – it shows a farmer bringing in cows as an ominous heap of clouds builds toward him. The farmer and cows are tiny figures in a expansive landscape beneath a vast, threatening sky.

Richard Brown never lets us forget that beauty comes at a price. He shows us a flowing landscape with a round barn in one photo – and then, in an accompanying closeup, we see that the round barn is completely sheathed in wooden shingles – every one of which had to be nailed in place by hand. The hard work it took to establish and maintain those open fields and broad vistas shows in the hands and faces of the rural people Brown so carefully, lovingly depicts.

There is fatigue, even defeat written on some faces. Yet on others, toughness, dignity, an underpinning of wry, survivalist humor can be seen.

Some photos strike me as deeply mysterious – for example, there’s one that shows us two maple trees and a stone wall. That’s all, or it appears to be all.

But a longer look reveals that these two maple trees are seriously battered by the weather, twisted, gnarly, missing some limbs. But they’re still standing, tall and erect; dignified, and in their own way starkly beautiful. One tree has fared better than the other; but, come spring, both will again put out new green leaves.

Behind them the stone wall is still straight and firm. Every stone has been put in place by hand, probably by an early owner of this land, clearly by someone who knew stone intimately, knew how to place it so that frost wouldn’t destroy his work. It too is a thing of proportion and reticent beauty.

Everything dusted by fresh snow. Transient. And eternal.

The show is at the Fairbanks Museum through October 29. The artist is photographer Richard Brown.

Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine.

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