We’ve had Skye Chalmers’s beautiful duotone photos up in the JDK Gallery for a little over a week now, and they are a passport to a different way of life: wide-eyed cows and expansive pastures under stormy skies; work-worn hands and the smile-lined faces of farmers. I recently had a chance to ask Skye a few questions, about his work and process, what’s next for this series of images, his book Sending Milk, and the Cabot Creamery Cooperative.
1. Tell us a little bit about this project. what lead to you taking the photographs for Sending Milk?I have photographed over the years for Cabot Cheese and a project surfaced where they wanted to provided a virtual tour of some of their farms on their website. I knew I would be traveling to many farms so I recognized a great opportunity to document all aspects of the dairy operation.
I was drawn to the incredible connections that the farmer has—to the weather, the land, the animals, the machinery. I think many of us don’t have that on a daily basis. if I can make people be more aware of that, I think that’s important. I want to people feel the value of an open pasture.
I wanted to capture what it takes to operate a farm on a daily basis—how much is involved. it wasn’t just about shooting the iconic picture of the farm, the green pasture and the silo. I want people to be realistic and recognize what it takes to operate a farm. It’s not just this sensational beauty. It’s real, and it’s tough. we see the mountains because of those pastures.
3. what was your process like, shooting on location?
I retooled my camera gear for the project and set out with a Rolleiflex 6×6 waist-level viewfinder, 6×8 Fuji rangefinder, Alpa 6×9 rangefinder, and a Leica M7 rangefinder. they all had a purpose not unlike a farmer’s tractors.
Because I was spending so much time on the farms, I could shoot, and then reshoot if I needed to. At each farm I’d focus on capturing a few important elements of the farm: the land, landscape, animals, people, tools, and machinery.
I was interested the sculptural qualities that I found on farms. I wanted to be invisible, and yet inject some style, through my choices in format and composition. Farms are such visually rich environments.
4. you took many pictures of the sensory details of farm life: work hands, tangled rope, cow pies, rubber tires, and tools. what interested you about these details?
They tell the story of the daily aspects of farms—not just the present, but also the wear of time. they provide a visceral connection to the past—farmers outlive cows, cows outlive farmers, tractors age to new purpose, tools are passed along, and the land threads them all together.
5. you shot the photos in this book over all four seasons. what was that like?
The weather was always changing. each season brings new projects and each has a unique set of pressures. Whether the critical timing of planting corn, finding the perfect window to chop the fields, filling the bunkers to the brim, or worrying about the snow load on the barns or when to tap the sugarbush. there is little time to relax.
6. Black and white says something radically different than color. what went into that decision for you?
I couldn’t pick and choose my days. it would be rainy or bright overhead sunlight when I went out, and black and white is much more dynamic in different lighting conditions.
I also feel that color will often hold the viewer on the surface and it leaves less room for ambiguity and suggestion. I wanted to reveal something below the surface. A tractor has soul, use, and purpose. I was always trying to bring the viewer beyond the surface, toward an abstract expression or essence.
7. you opted for medium-format duotone printing over digital. What’s special about printing?
Learning how to print—traditionally—teaches you how to see. you might shoot an image that you think won’t engage someone, but in the darkroom you can focus the viewers’ eyes on what you want to convey.
8. Huge metal plates from the printing process are hanging in our gallery right now. Tell us about that printing process.
It’s a raw, mechanical process. I like the sounds and the smells—similar to what I was drawn to on the farm. I really appreciate the process of a project or operation, so when I saw the used plates on the floor of the printing facility, I asked what they were doing with them. they said they would be recycled—so I had them ship them back to Vermont. they still smell of ink and are a messy item to handle.
9. you spent a lot of time as a witness on dairy farms. How do you think dairy farming is changing?
Well, it is next to impossible to raise a family of four or six on 50 milkers, which is something that was commonplace 50 years ago. Farmers today are developing new revenue sources and diversifying. many have alternate revenue streams: compost, subsidized electric costs through methane generators, farm stands, their own cheese, pudding, or yogurt, raw milk, vegetable gardens, maple sugar, logging, milling, selling square bales to horse farms, postal delivery, school teacher, and on and on. Farmers are practical, adaptive, and ingenious on many levels.
10. What’s next for you?
Well, I’d love to curate and manage a traveling exhibition, because locally sourced food is such a timely, relevant subject. But I also need to ramp up focus on my business, Image Relay. we provide software as a service to companies to manage and deliver their digital assets globally on a daily basis to distribute product images, videos, and marketing materials. there are thousands of users and millions of assets in transit.
All photos by Skye Chalmer and used with permission.