04 November 2014

Organic, Photographer & Subject

Written by Published in Book Reviews
CHRIS REGAN
Sky Farm, Millerton, NY
GAR WANG
Gar’s Den, Warwick, NY
MIRIAM LATZER
Good Flavor Farm, Clermont, NY
DR. SAM SIMON
Hudson Valley Fresh, Pleasant Valley, NY
JEFF BIALAS
J&A Farm, Goshen, NY
JAY UHLER
Peace & Carrots Farm, Chester, NY
HANNA BAIL
Threshold Farm, Philmont, NY
EUGENE WYATT
Catskill Merino Sheep Farm, Goshen, NY

A sense of kinship between photographer and subject permeates Francesco Mastalia's work. He makes photographs as photographers did 150 years ago, just like the farmers pictured in his latest book, Organic, grow vegetables and raise cattle in the tradition of their forebears. Like food produced with pride for flavour and texture, these are photographs to slowly savour

Organic is a feast to the senses. Much more than just a photography book about farmers and chefs of New York’s Hudson Valley, it is a message about integrity. The individuals  – and they are individuals! – encountered in this collection are less concerned about USDA organic certifications and government issued labels and more into creating healthy food, grown and prepared in traditional ways – food that is wholesome, sustainable and chemical-free.

Francesco Mastalia made the critical choice to photograph 136 organic farmers and chefs (103 appear in the book) with a reproduction of a large antique plate camera and original lens Dallmeyer 3B from the 1870s. No camera tilts or swings here. The camera is back to basics. It is modeled on a camera manufactured by E. & H.T. Anthony, the company that supplied Mathew Brady and his team of Civil War photographers with their cameras and chemicals.

In order to turn a piece of glass into a photographic negative or a positive (an ‘ambrotype’), it is necessary for the itinerant photographer (i.e. Mastalia) to travel with a lot of ‘stuff’: chemicals, trays, a specially designed box to transport the fragile glass, a ‘darkroom’ of his own design to sensitize and develop the photographs and, of course, a camera and tripod. The skill it takes to make a photograph is enormous, the dedication to craft extremely rare in the age of digital cameras. Every plate Mastalia makes is different, just like every meal prepared by a master chef.

It is hard to reproduce ambrotypes on paper – they are one-of-a kind, fragile, difficult to exhibit, and have no negative. However, their power resides in part from this fragility – their tactile quality, their absorption of light, their physicality. Mastalia has mastered a way of making beautiful prints on exquisite art paper from the original plates. There is a sensual quality to these works on paper that is quite different from the shiny glass surface of the ambrotype: palatable beards, wrinkles like rivers on faces, clothing draped as delicately as in Renaissance paintings.

Some faces speak to us as if from a previous century, such as John Gorzynski’s. Mastalia focuses on his eyes – the eyes that take us back to generations of farmers. The well-earned creases on his cheeks lead directly to those knowing eyes – ‘the window to the soul.’ He bares his soul not only in his portrait but also in his words: ‘I can look back and know I did no harm and I’m leaving things better than I found them.’

Organic: Farmers and Chefs of the Hudson Valley is a magnificent, important book. These strong, elegant, and mysterious photographs are the antidote to the gluttony which is the billions of smartphone and other fast pictures overwhelming our world. Why stuff yourself when you can savor true quality?

Francesco Mastalia’s ambrotypes are among the finest being made in the world today. His prints, equal in beauty and power to the ambrotypes themselves, are sensual and stunning. Many of the farmers and chefs talk of the ‘taste’ of a vegetable or fruit grown from organic seeds and without harmful chemicals. Mastalia’s photographs are made to relish, to digest. They are nourishing and life affirming. Just like good, wholesome food.

Organic CoverOrganic: Farmers & Chefs of the Hudson Valley by Francesco Mastalia
Preface by Joan Dye Gussow, PhD
Foreword by Mark Ruffalo
Introduction by Gail Buckland

Published by powerHouse Books $49.95 US/CAN (hardcover)
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