Broken Banjo Photography

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Warren Wilson Garden Crew and their Tractor: Swannanoa, North Carolina

This is Joe, Laila, Jenn, Melanie, and Micah, and Arielle in the next shot.  In the summer of 2010, Kacy Spooner and I were working on a project entitled "Stewards: Stories and Perspectives on American Agriculture".  We traveled to 24 states and conducted about 160 oral history interviews and portrait sessions.  We spoke to everyone from agribusiness plant breeders to grassroots farmers, folks with draft horses, tractor salesmen, professors, and, in this case, students.  In Swannanoa, NC, during the Warren Wilson College summer semester, we found this crew of five working on the garden/vegetable production plots.

After a few hours of interviewing members of this crew for the oral history project, it was time for a quick portrait.  Jenn (sitting at the driver's wheel) thought it would be a great idea to pull the tractor out because, hey, people look good with tractors!  The North Carolinian sun was high and bright, a classic bit of trouble for a photographer.  We positioned the tractor so that everybody would face away from the sun.  The camera settings were controlled to expose for the clouds/sky.  The challenge was then to use two small lights to expose the five characters properly.

You can see the sun's position, high, behind, and slightly camera-left, from the shadow cast by the left guy's hat.  See it streak down his chest?  Obviously, this cast his face in shadow, so a bare speedlight was held in my left hand, held at arm's length, to cancel the shadow out.  Another light was set up camera-right; you can see its effect on the right fellow's face and it also served to illuminate the two rear women.  This shot is practically right out-of-camera, with no post-processing.  Probably 8 minutes from parking the tractor to the final shot.

We spent the day with them; we had just come from a series of large-scale commercial chicken, hog, and tobacco operations, and the principled contrast with which this crew was working was stark.  Kacy wrote about them and Warren Wilson College in our blog at the time:
Warren Wilson College is a well known liberal arts school near Asheville that began as an agricultural school in the 19th century. There is still a large agricultural component and we were lucky enough to meet the student farm crew who is running the CSA as well as the market operation this season. It appears as though we have arrived at some kind of farm utopia; everyone is young and beautiful and farm chores in bikini tops is the norm here. Jenn, our main host told us about the origins of Warren Wilson. Agriculture was top priority from the foundation of the school, and in the original mission statement there is even a line about city boys with their "diseases and attitudes" not being welcome on campus.
Another quick shot; this is Arielle, who was working with the herb garden.  Same thing; I set the camera to expose for the building, having her stand with the sun at her back.  Two lights, bare, were used just to counter her hat's shadow and offer some contrast to the darker background. 
We toured around the garden which has an extensive herb section that students harvest to make teas and tinctures for personal use and to sell at the bookstore. The drying shed for the herbs was a small and beautiful log cabin with a kitchen in the downstairs and an attic that had an abundance of different herbs hanging from the rafters. The sweet smell that wafted over us was a mixture of lavender and licorice.
Arielle, pictured above, gave us a tour of that herb area; it really felt great, with herbs in all stages of drying or preservation.   Some more snapshots can be seen on the Stewards blog.

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