The 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire once wrote, "Nothing in a portrait is a matter of indifference. Gesture, grimace, clothing, décor, even - all must combine to realize a character." The approximately 80 images appearing in "We Are Vermont: Contemporary Portraits in Photography," at the Helen Day Art Center in Stowe, embody the truth of Baudelaire's assertion. Yet the exhibition is more than a collection of individual faces. Show curator Idoline Duke selected 10 photographers whose work reflects different approaches to what is ultimately a portrait of contemporary Vermont itself.
Ten 24-by-24-inch color photos by Burlington artist Rose McNulty draw attention to the Queen City's refugee population. The African woman in a mother-daughter portrait entitled "Nouveau American Gothic" wears a long orange dress and head wrap, while the man in "And Blue" is clad in a pale-blue dashiki shirt with traditional embroidery. He gazes serenely at the viewer, seemingly comfortable in his surroundings. McNulty writes in her posted artist's statement that she is "inspired by color in both garment and spirit" when she photographs the new Vermonters. Indeed, vibrant color is found in every inch of her photographs.
Abby Ross' large-scale color print "Gucci Cow" has more muted hues but is brilliantly composed. Jerry and Phyllis Rappaport, East Montpelier breeders of prize-winning Holsteins, stand at center stage flanked by four cows, two on each side. The lines of the barn's metal roof interior radiate above the Rappaports, similar to the lines of one-point perspective that lead eyes toward Jesus in "The Last Supper."
"Farmer with Cow #2, Morris-town" by Glen Callahan is a humorous 26-by-18-inch black-and-white picture showing the intimate relationship between bovine and farmer. At left is the tail end of a cow, and "abutting" her at right is a bent-over dairyman. His strapped-on milking stool dangles behind him like a waggling tail of his own.
The deadly serious themes of war and dissent have engaged Shaftsbury photographer Kevin Burbriski since 2001. The message on a protestor's sign becomes part of the title in "'Their Blood Is on Our Hands,' Iraq War Protest, Bennington." The image features a white-bearded old man in a winter coat and boots, standing alone between the large pillars of a colonnade. The gent in "Elderly Man at Veterans' Day Parade, Bennington" wears a cap and holds a cane, has a small American flag tucked in his jacket, and stands in front of a white picket fence. A more poignant flag appears in Burbriski's shot of the coffin of Vermont's first soldier fallen in the Iraq war, Erik Halvorsen, returning home with military honors.
Color photos from Caleb Kenna's "The Golden Cage" series are portraits of undocumented Mexican workers who have found employment on Vermont dairy farms. His posted artist's statement describes migrant laborers as "an invisible population" that "toils in fear and isolation." Kenna concludes: "The following are an attempt to humanize this important issue facing Vermont and the nation."
Given his good intentions, it's unfortunate that, like McNulty, Kenna doesn't accompany his photographs with personal information about the individuals portrayed. Also, in ironic contrast to Kenna's statement about "toils," the workmen look proud to be employed in Vermont and providing income to their families back home.
Kenna might revisit the works of early 20th-century photographer Lewis Hine, whose images affected child-labor laws in America. One of Hine's classic captions was "Furman Owens, 12 years old. Can't read. Doesn't know his ABC's. Said, 'Yes I want to learn but can't when I work all the time.'" That humanizing technique makes it clear the photographer isn't objectifying his subjects but actually interacting with them in an empathetic way.
The people portrayed in "We Are Vermont" are collectively more diverse than one might think, given the state's reputation as one of America's whitest states. And the best of the show's work demonstrates that our diversity is more than skin deep.