Over twenty years ago photographer Dana Matthews and writer Richard Giles met in the rural deep south. Matthews came from her grandmother’s farm and Giles from the Delta by way of farms in the Mississippi Black Belt to tramp with a great photographer named Tom Waters through some wild and viney parts of the country. Between Matthews’ home in Alabama and Giles’s home in Mississippi lies Hale county Alabama, where Walker Evans and James Agee collaborated to make Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, that amazing document about people struggling to survive in places where food, hardship, beauty and hunger meet. These realities very much describe the lives of small-scale farmers in America today.
We came north, not together, but by separate accidents and plans and escapes, and nearly as quickly and accidentally found our familiar “south” in the Catskills region of New York State. Delaware County, three hours out of the great city, the watershed from which New York drinks, with its deep rich soils along the rivers, is one of the poorest counties in the state. This ironic tune plays again and again across our country—rich land, poor people; good food gone over to a land of potato chips. Giles came back to the country with his wife Holley to farm small and to write. Matthews came from her art studio in a blighted urban wasteland to her cabin in the woods to breathe and to create.
Hundreds of farms in Delaware County were abandoned in the 80’s but the last 10 years has seen a revived interest in small scale food production spawned by an influx of a new generation of farmers. Many of these farmers are implementing new ideas and methods of organic and sustainable practices, while walking the tightrope of economic survival. As we are both influenced by our upbringings on farms and from our close proximity to Hale County Alabama, this body of work began to develop centered on Matthew’s portraits of life and labor on Gile’s Lucky Dog Farm. Over ten years, Lucky Dog Farm has grown good honest food for regional farm markets and for the ever hungry populace of New York City. In the process it has become a home to a growing family of dedicated labor with their own growing families, and the bearer of growing debts.
Farmers like Giles face a future of uncertainty: the disappearance of fertile farmland, floods, blights and droughts wrought by climate change, the effect of climate change on farm work and production, how to farm and what to eat when the oil runs out, constant threats to a clean and abundant water supply, and the impending food shortage little explored by the mass media. We are driven by our desire to connect a broader audience to the land and to the people who feed us.
All of this is to say that the collaboration between this photographer and this writer began years ago and now lives on an old farm in a whole new world of local food, clean food, food touched again by human hands. And the life of the farm and the life of the food comes, yes, from the dirt, but also from the hands of those who grow and harvest it, wash it and pack it into boxes. And this collaboration comes to this land and to these farmers who farm the land to ask for images—the photographs and the paragraphs each lusting in their own way for images that, taken together, might make sense of the life of our food.
read excerpts at danamatthewsdotcom farm work portfolio Read Less