Of Farms and Fables combines the efforts of professional and non-professional artists by engaging artists in farm work and farm workers in storytelling and acting. The result will be an original performance in October of 2011 which will engage performers and audience in dialogue about local agriculture, farming, and the future of small family farms in Maine.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Glamor Shots (Claire)

Do you remember Glamor Shots? They loom large in the category of my memories reserved for
things that made me really jealous in grade school. Really lucky girls from my class would go to
the Maine Mall for their time in the Glamor Shots studio. They got their makeup and hair done,
(and by done I mean totally tricked out) and get to choose from a slew of outfits- a biker jacket,
a cowboy hat and fringed vest, an evening gown complete with feather boa... you get the picture.
A week or so later, a larger glossy envelope would show up at school and our friend would be
transformed from a normal kid into something like this:

Oh man.
Our friend was a model. After Glamor Shots happened, we never thought of her the same way again- she now knew things we couldn't possibly know about- the instant expert on all things model related. She knew how to pose for the camera, apply a lot of eye make up- all that stuff, and she had the pictures to prove it.
So why all the reminiscing about Glamor Shots?

Last week while on Benson farm, I learned about their bovine equivalent.
For farmers like Eddie and Becky, getting portraits of their cows allows them to market themselves to potential buyers. Hiring a professional livestock photographer isn't cheap- the Bensons employ photographers from as far away as Minnesota to the tune of about 500$ a session, but it is pretty necessary. Since I carry a camera with me while I'm on the farm, Ryan (the herdsman) wanted to show off this photographic prowess. Here he is in a professional portrait:

Pictured with him is Elsa. (She's a beaut, huh?)
Ryan walked me through the process of cow portraits: First, she has had her coat washed, clipped and brushed up along her spine to make her look her back look totally straight. Then, her tail is washed clean of any poop residue and brushed out. She is posed on a little platform to give her posture a boost (see it? under her front legs?) and her back legs are staggered so you can see her udder better. Ryan is holding her head up to show off her excellent profile while trying to be as far out of the picture as possible. Cool, right? But wait till you hear about the stuff you don't see.
As you can imagine, 1,500 lb+ cows are not very easy to pose. Originally, there were 3 more people in this photo helping Ryan hold her in place on the lawn outside the Benson's barn. This lawn is nowhere near any placid lakes (as the picture would suggest), but when the photographer edited out the other people, she also superimposed a brand new backdrop. Presto Change-o!
Apparently in the old days (read: before photoshop) photographers were little more
explicit about their cover-ups. It was common practice to use a fine paint brush and paint out extra people, extra shine on the cow's coats- whatever a little airbrushing would take care of now. Other than that trick, its hard to tell what else professional livestock photographers do to these photos to turn normal slouchy, dirty, normal happy cows like the one here into the glamorous belles like Elsa. I wrote to lots of them, but only one was willing to give me a price for a session. Ryan said, "Well, they have lots of patience." (I highly suggest visiting their websites, though. Many livestock photographers also will take senior portraits, leading to photographic gems like this, but I digress.)
The thing about these Glamor Shots is that everyone knows that they aren't the day to day truth. Anyone looking at that cowgirl portrait at the top of this post would not expect a real kid to look that that on a daily basis. In the same way, no one who is in a position to be buying a cow based on her professional portrait would expect her to look like that all the time. Farmers (and Glamor Shots girls for that matter) get these portraits done to bring out the qualities they think are the best, most attractive or desirable. They make a record of all that good stuff and photoshop out the rest of it. Its sort of a beautiful idea when you think about it. Eddie and Becky have a number of portraits of past champion cows in their house, and its lovely to think of being able to remember an animal they cared deeply about in its most perfect form.
Have you ever heard of a collection of essays by Roland Barthes called "Mythologies"? I was introduced to them by UnionDocs, a brooklyn based group of documentarians. If you've never read them, I highly suggest it. (Start with the one about professional wrestling. Its a doozy.) For Barthes, myths aren't only the traditional stories we tell; there are myths everywhere within our daily lives. They are the meanings we take for granted, what he calls the "falsely obvious." These photos are a perfect example of something we know is untrue, yet use as truth- to sell a cow, to make our schoolmates jealous- all the while creating an image of something that really doesn't ...completely... exist.
As the documentarian for the project, I found myself thinking about this a lot. What a cool way of thinking about photos! While I'm on the farm snapping pictures, I like to think that I'm creating a record of my experiences, collecting facts, making some sort of log. The thing is that photos can only record what the photographer can get a good shot of.
Jennie likes to say "Notice your narratives, listen to your assumptions," when we talk about our experiences after a long day on the farm. After my encounters with professional livestock photography, I'm going to be applying this theory to my own photos too. After all: If a portrait can spawn a myth, I can't help but wonder: what will spawn our "Farms and Fables" fable?
Can't wait to find out!

A few extra thoughts for the week:
  • Although Eddie and Ryan won't confirm that cows who have had their portraits taken use it to make their fellow barn mates jealous, I did learn that former show cows tend to be a little more stubborn than others. When one slipped her harness in the barn, Ryan said, "that'll happen. She's a former showgirl, and she's still a big diva."
  • Some friends who farm in Mass came to visit with a load of lovely veggies and they have coined a term I'd like to submit for the glossary: an Embarrassment of zucchini. You can have heards of cows, bunches or radishes, even a murder of crows. This is their term for a large amount of zucchini. (thanks Aubrey and Braden!)
  • This is our midway point for project research! The Photo collection on Picasa is also almost at it's halfway point! (Did I really take 500 photos? yikes!) See if you can spot my assumptions and narratives in the shots, or just take a tour of our time on the farm. Can we make it to 1,000 photos by mid August? Stay tuned!
Oh yeah. I drove a Freightliner too!