David R. Godine is one of the great cultural resources of New England. For almost half a century, the Boston- and Jaffrey, N.H.-based publisher has been shepherding often regional, sometimes quirky, but always handsomely designed books to the shelves of discriminating readers. Success at Godine is measured not in sales, but in a belief in exceptional writers and the need to keep alive the craft of the making of beautiful books.
This has often meant rescuing classic works of literature and reprinting them, along with supporting writers, poets and illustrators. The Godine catalog reads as a Who’s Who of 20th-Century literature – John Banville, Anne Lindbergh, Noel Perrin, Lee Laurie, Dylan Thomas and two Nobel laureates for poetry, just to name a few.
Godine has also long been a patron of art photography, publishing the work of such noted photographers as Paul Caponigro, George Tice and Nicholas Nixon. To that list the publisher had just added a handsome volume of images of a disappearing rural way of life in the nether reaches of northern New England, The Last of the Hill Farms: Echoes of Vermont’s Past.
Photographer and writer Richard W. Brown, who moved to the village of Peacham in Caledonia County in 1971, is well known for dozens of books and his many contributions to Vermont Life magazine. That world of human interest and pretty scenery was in Kodachrome. But Brown was also quietly using an 8 by 10-inch view camera with black and white film to document the hardscrabble life of Vermonters beyond Burlington, Orvis, the ski areas and the flatlanders.
Brown’s work is in the noble tradition of American documentary photography, epitomized by Walker Evans and countless other artists working for the Farm, Security Administration during the Depression. (Brown was undoubtedly inspired by photographer Paul Strand, many of whose Yankee portraits were collected in the iconic book Time In New England, published in 1950.)
The four score photos in The Last of the Hill Farms are straightforward images (a bulky view camera imposes a certain discipline on its user). People are captured without artifice, with respect and love. But, like their Depression-era predecessors, these pictures depict poverty. These farmers are working a harsh and unforgiving land, and one wonders how long this sort of agriculture can endure. As former Vermont Life editor Tom Slayton writes in the foreword, “There is fatigue, even defeat written on some faces. Yet on others, toughness, dignity, an underpinning of wry, survivalist humor can be seen.”
One picture is from 1987, but most are from the 1970s. Brown presumably got tired of lugging around his heavy equipment, or perhaps the state was becoming too gentrified. “By the time I took these photographs,” Brown writes, “there were only a few farms scattered along the back roads of each Vermont village – small families milking thirty or forty cows.”
The landscape has been neglected, barns need paint and houses need resuscitation. “Seemingly forgotten by the rush of progress, they aged with a poignant grace: spare, worn, yet to my eye hauntingly beautiful.” Brown’s sentiments walk a thin line between genuine sociological concern and picturesque tourism. (“Wrecked cars ands derelict tractors rusted away at the edges of field and tethered goats grazed on lawns. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.”)
Some of the stories related in the text border on the mawkish, and depictions of horses, cows and barn cats are always in danger of veering toward the cute. Still, it is hard not to laugh at farmer Milo Persons being roused from a coma by a doctor whispering into his ear, “Milo, your cows are out.” And there is a whole lot of wisdom in one farmwife’s confession: “I don’t mind dying, but I am sure going to miss sugaring.”
“It was too good to last,” Brown laments. “But with my camera I could bear witness to this compelling world while it still lingered.” Richard Brown’s collected images – a timeless love letter to his adopted state – make a magnificent testament.
William Morgan taught the history of photography at Princeton University, and is the author of A Simpler Way of Life: Old Farmhouses of New York & New England, among other books.