Our farm is nothing if not photogenic. By some definitions, we're part of the Midwest here in south-central Indiana, but never mind the endlessly flat vistas that evokes. The glaciers that bulldozed so much of the region during the last ice age ground to a halt a few miles north of us. This is hill and dale country, and second-growth forest mixes with flower-speckled pasture on our 80 acres of it. Add a group of personable animals who know how to strike a pose, and - well, you get the picture.
So do a good many shutterbugs.
It's not so much that it's a pretty place, though it is, except for certain mucky regions of the barn lot on a wintry day. What it has is texture, as one photographer put it on his first visit. He'd come out on a tip from a friend - as it happened, it was Charlie's daughter, who didn't realize what she was getting us into. Rich spent the better part of the next year and a half learning photography and snapping away as we went about our business milking cows, making hay, working the horses, tapping the trees, and building a log sugaring cabin back among the maples. He not only captured the essence of the farm in full flower and in all four seasons, but won our enduring friendship as well.
Things have quieted down since the heyday of our dairy years. We've retired from commercial milking and only a handful of (also retired) cows still graze and calve on the pastures, which are growing ever wilder about the edges. The place, though, still has texture. A photographer from the local paper captured some of it around the downy muzzle of our Belgian Jim one frigid day last winter as the horse stood by the road, breathing clouds of steam into the setting sun. Its publication in the next day's edition won Jim a bag of apples from a reader who addressed the envelope with her $5 gift to "Jim - the horse on Bethel Lane." It got to us, and the apples got to Jim. Picture power.
Such photos never fail to inspire me to try to capture what I know and love about the farm with my own little automatic camera. But I'm almost never wowed by the images, nice as they are in their own flat way - and it makes me wonder about the dance between eye and texture.
Years ago, my son took the same little camera and caught me one morning pouring fresh, warm cow's milk from a metal bucket into the cooler tank. He didn't even set up the shot; he simply aimed and clicked with a 6-year-old's sudden whimsy. But the photo found its way into a little regional publication, having perfectly captured a workaday moment.
Whether it's the landscape or the evocative animals, the way the light slants at a certain time of day, artistic talent, or even beginner's luck, certain pictures of our farm bring it instantly to life, breathing almost on their own. I've never grasped that brass ring of great photography, and no longer count it as a goal.
In fact, I rarely carry a camera about these days. We have whole albums of photos that professionals and amateurs alike have bestowed upon us, and we feel no need for more. I've attached some of the best of the animal portraits to the bottoms of antique glass paperweights, so that our menagerie looks up at us from desks and worktables. Stacks of other farm images are stored in drawers, and now and then I thumb through them. The familiar scenes and the memories they evoke pop up from the depths like old friends.
Or, I can just walk out the door and revisit the settings and the constellation of events behind stand-out photos.
I still feel a stab of injustice when I walk down one hill to the stream where I'd spent a whole morning splitting logs until Charlie arrived to relieve me. As he raised the ax for the second or third thwack, Rich began to click away. He got a wonderful image of Charlie in full swing amid an impressive pile of freshly split firewood. When it appeared in his local exhibition of farm photos, I had the uncharitable urge to tack on a Post-it clarifying just who'd provided all the background texture.
It's worth noting that Charlie has never owned a camera or bothered to take a single photo of his oh-so-photogenic farm. In its most eye-catching moments his hands have tended to be full - working the draft horses, mucking out the barn, cutting hay, milking a cow. Or wielding an ax, which he admittedly does more often than I do. (Rich's photo was true to the big picture.) They are, come to think of it, hands that have more than a little to do with the farm's texture. Whether or not anyone ever focuses a lens on it.