A Farm Story in Photographs: Creating a Visual Narrative

November 10, 2017

I come from a family of farmers — my grandfather and great-grandfather were in business together growing clover as cattle feed, which in time expanded into various commercial crops (cotton, corn, soybeans, sorghum, wheat, etc.)  My uncles carry on the business, and my grandmother still lives at the heart of it.  Every single year my parents would pack us up in the car and we would trek to central Louisiana to spend our holidays on the farm; 4th of July and Christmas were the times when everyone would convene there (eventually Easter and Thanksgiving, too), and every trip was a new opportunity for me to make photographs.  

My mother taught me how to use an SLR camera and encouraged my interest in photography from a young age.  Some of the earliest images that I made and loved were of my cousins dressing up in my grandmother's vintage clothes, the farm as their backdrop.  In over 20 years of photographing there, I still am inspired every single visit I take.  It’s as if arriving at this location removes a filter from my eyes, allowing me to see every moment, every spot, every detail as a photo waiting to be made.  

I try to visit as often as possible, so when I found some much needed free time in early July, I packed up the kids and headed in.  I knew I wanted some new images of my grandmother, as well as imagery of the current crops in rotation. Aside from this agenda, I wanted to let myself be freely inspired by what the location offers. So many years and so many photographs have turned into a large, well-rounded photographic story, and I am always eager to make additions to it.  

Dirt Path to Tractors, 2015. This image was shot the week that my grandfather passed away. It was shot around 5pm my son was one. His bare feet on the well worn dirt path and the quality of the light all combine to help convey my feelings at the time, utilizing the EOS-1D X, shot at the 35mm end of the EF 16-35mm f/2.8L lens.

On this particular visit, I reach my grandmother’s house and my senses perk…cattle egrets stalk through the yard searching for bugs in the mowed grass.  Dappled light patterns the dirt shortcut from her house to the gravel road, and across the cattle guard to my uncle's house.  The golf cart holds buckets of all sizes, appropriate for whatever is ripe from the trees and the garden and needs to be brought in.  Flowers and trees are in full bloom — wisteria creeps up a telephone line; zinnias and marigolds, caladiums, phlox, day lilies, roses and more create color and texture against the driveway and the house.  Cows laze in the shade behind a long black fence, chickens squawk and peck anxiously waiting for garden scraps.  As is my usual practice in this locale, I absorb the surroundings and consider the images I want to make during this trip.

I retrieve my grandmother and we walk and talk as I take it all in, pausing now and then to make photographs.  The nearest field is across the road, and I can see it from her backyard.  This field is in beans, the next in hay, another in corn.  Not much is happening nearby.  I take a picture of some seed storage bins framed by oak trees at the end of the gravel road that runs behind the house. The clouds are heavy and make for nice balance in the images.

Seed Bins, 2017. The framing of the seed bins by the trees is what caught my eye in this image, compounded by the dappled light and cloudy sky. This was shot with the EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens certainly not the first lens you would think of for a shot like this, but the clarity of the lens is brilliant and my distance made it a good fit.

In a space so large, it’s important to capture the grand sweeping landscapes as well as the smallest of details to complete the story.  I find myself using the EF 16-35mm wide-angle zoom and the EF 100mm Macro the most often, trying to convey scale as well as impart the importance of things like hand tools, roots, toys that were once my father’s, that my son plays with now: a taped spoon in the greenhouse used for planting by my grandmother, and by her mother; garlic laid to dry; antique gas pumps and soda machines that were once in the office, which was also a seed house.  And then there are the buildings that house tractors, plows, and all manner of large-scale farm equipment; silos hold grain and corn; fields are plowed and planted in beautiful rows that last as far as you can see. 

Spoon for Potting, 2007. The documentation of objects that are unique to your own experience can help your audience have greater feelings of empathy and understanding towards your narrative. This image was made with an EOS 20D and 24-70mm f/2.8L lens at 48mm a neutral position that echoes the way we naturally see.

It’s an interesting thing to approach the same subject over and over, and to try to feel refreshed about it every time. One of the nicest things about photographing this way is that it proves a great way to build a series.  It provides you with the opportunity to work both intuitively, and with purpose.  You have the ability to review the images that you have made and reflect on them: Am I capturing the things that are most important to me? What do I need to fill in the gaps? Is my primary focus the people, the location, the product of the land? Are there smaller groupings inside the larger series that tell stories in themselves, or do all of the images lend themselves to the greater purpose? Or even, can I retake the same image but make it better? Reflecting on our artwork is one of the greatest tools that we have in propelling forward and creating fresh imagery.  

For me, all of the details, big and small, perpetuate the same grand story in the photographic series.  Enter the visual narrative: a story told through imagery.  This one is a story of family, hard work, perseverance, and their connection and dedication to their land.  And as the photographer, I am reflected through the images – so it is a story that reveals my own growth. Each visit is in a way its own small narrative, documenting the surrounding events and the evolving land and my children at the time.  Yet they are connected through a sense of timelessness that exists from the common location, spaces, objects, and people.

Lagniappe Cotton Gin, 2007. Years later this gin is still in operation. It sits right next to my family’s property and is where the cotton is processed after the harvest. It’s important to convey that this is both a commercial operation as well as a deeply hands-on trade.

Writing down the critical elements that will comprise your story can help it to feel unified. Consider even making a checklist of the features that are most critical in portraying your visual message. Try starting large and working your way to the details.  This is where having an assortment of lenses can be helpful.  As a quick example: Cotton is being harvested.

1. Photograph the tractors in the field full of cotton (EF 16-35 mm f/2.8)

2. Photograph the spent cotton that the tractor leaves in its path (EF 35mm f/1.4)

3. Photograph the farmer in the field (EF 85mm f/1.2)

4. Photograph a cotton bulb in his hand (EF 135mm f/2)

Cotton Bulb After Harvest, 2007. There were additional images that accompanied this shot, both wider and more closeup of the aftermath of the cotton harvest, shot with the EOS 20D and EF 24-70 f/2.8L lens at 70mm. The contrasting sharpness of the spent bulb and gentle bokeh from the lens help this image to stand out from the others.

When creating your visual narrative, one of the best techniques for maintaining the interest of your viewer is by mixing up your perspective so that your content not only has variety in content but also variety in composition. One of the easiest ways to achieve this is to invest in lenses that perform differently in their functionality. The EF 16-35mm, EF 24-70mm, and EF 70-200 are a classic grouping that will essentially cover the majority of standard shooting circumstances. If you are a lover of prime lenses, consider a wide-angle, a normal, and a telephoto lens. With the cropped sensor cameras, multi-purpose lenses like the EF-S 18-200mm, or the combination of EF-S 18-55mm with the EF-S 55-250mm have a great range.  Beyond the basics, specialty lenses like macro lenses, super-telephoto, and tilt-shift lenses can all lend their unique styles to your storytelling.  

Frequenting the same subject is a unique experience in that you have the opportunity to learn about your subject and make informed decisions about your approach each consecutive visit.  If I know the summer crops vs. the winter crops, the daily routine of the workings of the farm, the most active times and the slower times, then I can plan accordingly.  Even little things like knowing what my grandmother has in her house that I can use as props – all are useful in developing depth and informing my story.

Corn Close to Harvest, 2017. A wide-angle perspective of my uncle’s field in corn creates a linear perspective, which visually breaks up the frame by both color and texture.

Being able to work in this manner provides the opportunity to listen, and listening makes for better storytelling.  I may arrive with a plan, but part of that plan is always asking questions about the happenings around the farm, and the (non-photographic) things that we need to accomplish while I’m visiting.  Invariably, these always lead to quality time spent, which leads to quality picture making! Spending mornings picking and canning figs, or riding along with my grandfather as he explains how each individual field got its name – priceless time spent that enabled me to photograph the traditions that they hold so dear.  Make what is important to them important to you, and you will find doors that are open and welcoming.

Helping to Open a Jar, 2013. In this case, a literal ‘outside perspective’ adds to the intimacy of a quiet shared moment of my grandfather helping my grandmother. This was made with the EF 50mm f/1.4 lens on an EOS-1D Mark IV body.

Be inspired. Make a plan. Be informed. Listen. And finally, interject your own point-of-view. With camera in hand, we make the visual decisions that comprise our photographs. Every image is your own perspective, so put some love in them! We are able to capture our own emotional response to our subject (a magical and mysterious phenomenon to be sure) and this is what will make a story strong! If I take the time to make these memories, then they are now my own, and mine to illustrate to the best of my ability.  My point-of-view allows you to see them the way I intend.  

So how do you decide when a story is finished? Consider your narrative as a whole, and what images you need to tie it all together.  Writing down a list of goals, or important information that frames the story may be helpful.  Also important is your access to the subject or location – if access is limited, your story may need a hard resolution.  If unlimited, then perhaps, like this one, it will continue indefinitely.  Make the most of your time, and trust that you will feel the resolution when you have reached it.  

I truly believe that you make the strongest images of that which you love the most.  Henri Cartier-Bresson, the father of the decisive moment, summed it up when he made the statement, “It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera…they are made with the eye, heart and head.” If this is so, then it’s easy to imagine how a place filled with love, kindness, and memories new and old, can serve as an eternal muse.  What a gift that we as photographers are also storytellers, with the ability to document and share the narratives that are important to us!

The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.


© 2018 Canon U.S.A., Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.