What does it really look like to work on a farm?
Photographer Brent Seabrook is seeking to examine and answer this question through images of Vermont’s rich agricultural life and its workers in his series called the Vermont Farm Work Project. As part of the series, Seabrook has been photographing the many different aspects of local farming, from apple orchards to vegetable fields, lumber harvesting to dairy operations, made syrup production and more.
“I try to take a picture that is attractive and that people want to look at, but that also gives information,” he said. “There has to be a hook that captures attention and draws you to it. But then the trickier part is where I try to impart a psychological element where viewers think, ‘Whoa! What is he doing or thinking?’
“Very simply, this is what is going on in the Vermont country, these different types of farming. I love agriculture. It’s so basic. It’s how we get our food. With these photos I am trying to let people know what is going on.”
Back in the early 1970s, Seabrook was working on an apple orchard and found himself fascinated with the different stages of apple development. He would flip through trade journals on his lunch break and noted that the photographs were pretty low-quality. From that realization, Seabrook began taking a series of high-quality, very detailed images of the approximately 70 named stages of an apple’s development.
Following on, the relationship between his labor on the farm and his photographic art continued as he began capturing images of work around the farm.
“What I discovered doing farm work and taking pictures was that it is like sports photography in that the subject is moving. So, I am constantly moving and getting the right light,” Seabrook related.
Out of the hundreds of photos he’ll shoot on a farm, Seabrook might have a few dozen that marry the right lighting with an interesting composition to show work on a Vermont farm. Over the span of the project a few have stuck out in his mind as particularly compelling.
“There is one photograph of Dave Matt of Hall Farm holding up maple syrup to compare the grade. It is one of the best to tell a story as Dave has an intense expression (on his face) … His son Eric is behind him looking at his father,” Seabrook said.
“Another photo is a picture of a man using a hand-powered planting device. The machine is over 100 years old, but at small farms it is still popular. So, the man is using this seeder, but around his neck he has this device to listen to his phone, which is in his pocket.”
Just as The Vermont Farm Work Project profiles a variety of different types of farms in the state, the composition of the photographs can vary. Some are action shots, perhaps of a tractor seeding a field or someone feeding an animal. Others are group shots that Seabrook said illustrate the camaraderie of working together on a farm.
Another set consists of portraits of the workers on the farm, some of whom travel from Jamaica to assist with the seasonal work.
“I can imagine expanding this project to what the workers do after work,” Seabrook said. “About four years ago I interviewed about 20 of the men and recorded them. I would like to pair those interviews with the portraits. I’d also be interested in finding other types of farming and to include some landscapes, if they tell a story.”
Through Sept. 28, the public has the opportunity to view the narrative of The Vermont Farm Work Project at an exhibition of these photographs at the Putney Public Library in Vermont.
“The Putney Public Library offers a whole range of programs from reading groups and poetry sessions, to demonstrations by musicians and minding bees. Of course, art is an integral part of our public offerings and the library has been exhibiting local artists’ work for the past 15 years,” said Nancy Storrow, who organized The Vermont Farm Work Project Show at the library. “Brent’s photographs are a perfect choice. They reflect the surrounding agricultural life in a fresh way.
“Putney is a small, semi-rural town, but most people don’t work on the farms or even visit farms. It’s interesting that with all the excitement about farmers’ markets, there remains a disconnect between the consumers and the farmers. Brent’s portraits also include the diversity of farm laborers, reminding viewers that Vermont is many things,” Storrow added.
To view The Vermont Farm Work Project, visit the Putney Public Library at 55 Main St. during regular open hours, Monday through Friday, from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., or Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. There is no cost for admission. More of Seabrook’s imagery can be viewed online at brentseabrookphotography.com.