July 7th, 2014
ORGANIC: Farmers & Chefs of the Hudson Valley. A Chat with Francesco Mastalia
BY Kari Skaflen
A man stares back. His beard, grayed and barbed, leads to chiseled cheekbones and startlingly intense eyes sheltered beneath bushy brows. The sepia toned portrait looks as though it might have been taken in the 1850s. The man, unflinchingly staring, could be a battered civil war soldier or a weary railroad builder. He is neither. He is a farmer. The portrait was taken last year in New York’s Hudson Valley.
This compelling image is part of a series by photographer Francesco Mastalia. Mastalia traveled thousands of miles and photographed nearly 140 farmers and chefs working in the Hudson Valley using the 19th century collodion technique also known as “wet-plate.” In the process, he learned quite a bit about organic farming, its politicization and supporting local farms. Now his portraits have been collected and will appear together with interviews in a book, Organic Farmers & Chefs of the Hudson Valley, due out this fall.
I spoke with Francesco Mastalia to find out more about his historic photographic technique and the stunning portraits he produces.
KS: Tell me how you got into photography and then the unusual collodion process work.
FM: I started in photography when I was a teenager. Early on I said to myself, “Why should I work for a living when I could just take pictures?” That was always in my mind and that’s how I’ve spent my life.
I became interested in collodion photography when digital photography really started to kick in. I’ve been working with the collodion process for about 10 years now. I always loved working in the darkroom and fell in love with the actual photographic process. When digital photography came along, I didn’t like working on the computer and there was a real disconnect for me.
The way I fell in love with photography, and I can probably speak for a number of other photographers, was being in the darkroom for the first time and you seeing your print come up in the developer, it’s the magic of photography at work. It’s a real wow moment. I never had a moment like that with digital photography. Now with wet plate, I feel that every time I shoot a plate.
I bring a portable darkroom with me. You coat the glass plate with collodion, sensitize it in a tank of silver nitrate, take the exposure, and then develop it immediately. Once you start the process it takes approximately 8-10 minutes from start to finish. You have to complete the whole process while the plate is still wet. That’s how it got the name, “wet plate photography.”
The elements — temperature and humidity — affect how the portrait comes out?
You do your best to try to control it and get it into a certain place, but there are so many factors where things can go off. Once you mix collodion — you mix it with light sensitive salts, iodides and bromides — it needs to mature. And as time goes on, the sensitivity changes. It works well at around 68°F, so when it’s hotter or colder different things start to happen. I could start at 10:00am in the morning and by midday the sun is hitting my darkroom and heating it up and things start change. So in the end, you never know what it’s going to look like. And that’s the beauty — when you put in the fixer all the sudden the image starts to magically appear. It’s what would happen in the darkroom, but it happens much faster.
I notice, the process is really fun for the subjects; you pull out this old wooden camera and brass lens, and you’re setting up this darkroom and people get very excited. As soon as you shoot the first plate and they watch it come up with you, they get into the whole process. It’s fun, it’s an experience for them. A number of the farmers say, I’ve been photographed so many times, but it’s never like this. So that’s great. I leave this memory for them.
Explain what you set out to do with the Organic Project, versus what it ultimately became?
It was a three-year project. My goal was to photograph 100 farmers and chefs. I logged in 17,000 miles of driving through the Hudson Valley. It was eye-opening for me, not that I had an expectation, but to hear the political aspect of it was surprising. The government creates our food policies and the regulations that farmers go by, so it is a political issue.
As a farmer, unless you are certified by the government, which means you have to abide by their rules, fill out lots paperwork, and pay a fee each year — you are not allowed to use the word “organic.” If you are at a farmer’s market and you are not certified and you use the word you can get fined up to $10,000 each time. So you can go to a farmer’s market and you might see a farmer who doesn’t have an organic sign up. It’s not that he’s not [organic], it’s just that he can’t use the word because he decided not to get the certification.
A lot of the farmers say, we have a personal relationship with our customers, we sell our food face to face. If anyone wants to ask us any questions, they can. If anyone wants to come to our farm, they can come anytime to see what we do. It’s really based on trust and transparency. We have nothing to hide. So they feel because they have this direct relationship with people they sell food to, they don’t need the certification. It’s kind of funny that if you want to grow food in the purest way possible and you’re looking after the land, you need to fill out all this paperwork and you need to pay.
Meanwhile, if you take a chemical farmer for comparison? They do not have to certify, they don’t have to pay, they get tax breaks and they get subsidies. That doesn’t make too much sense.
There was a turning point early on in the project when I asked a farmer, what comes to mind when you hear the word organic? and he said, I’m not use to saying that word because the government owns it. And I said, what do you mean? And he went on to tell the story. It was that day when driving home, I realized there’s a much larger story to be told here.
What did he say specifically that ignited that thought for you?
The story is this: know who you’re buying your food from, know how it’s grown, know where it’s produced. I think that’s why, especially in the Hudson Valley, farmers’ markets are flourishing. I think people enjoy and appreciate just being able to talk to the farmer about their growing methods. In the Hudson Valley there’s no large industrial farming, it’s small farms, family farms. There are farms that have been in families for generations. The big message here is buy your food locally and know where your food is coming from. And we have the luxury of doing that here. You don’t have to go too far to find a farm, a farm stand or a farmer’s market.
[Organic is] a word that has been taken over by the government and it’s been redefined. And within that process a lot of farmers dropped their organic certification. The USDA took over the organic certification program in 2002. Some of the farmers who were certified at that point said, this does not reflect what we do and it’s not organic to us. They dropped their certification.
[The U.S. Government] has a list of chemicals you are permitted to use and still call yourself organic — USDA organic. Basically, it’s semantics because anything that is naturally occurring in the earth is considered organic. There are a lot of chemicals that are naturally occurring in the earth, but that doesn’t mean we want to consume them. If you go into a supermarket and it will say USDA organic, but it might have been grown in China or Mexico and we don’t know what their regulations are like. So, there’s a big question mark there.
Was it difficult to convince the farmers to be a part of the project or were they pretty excited about it?
No, not at all. I ended up photographing 136 farmers and chefs. There was only one person who said no. I decided when I first exhibit the work, I wanted it to be in the Hudson Valley because I wanted the farmers and chefs to be able to see their photos on a gallery wall. And some of the farmers came in and said, we’re so honored to be a part of this project, thank you. I told them, this project is not about me. It’s about you and your message and your beliefs.
So, no I didn’t have a hard time at all. One farmer would tell me about another and then another. Do you know this person? And you should see this chef, and it kept growing and growing. My goal originally was to just photograph 100. I got to 136 and if I wanted to get to 200, I would not have had a problem.
Why did you feel it was important to include chefs as well as farmers in the Organic Project?
Because I think it’s a different perspective. They are people who want to support local farmers and they talked about the value of using food from a local farm. The goal is to cut down the amount of time between a food coming out of the ground, off the farm and to the table. As soon as the food comes out of the ground it has the most nutrition and the most flavor. The chefs talked about how the flavor of the food is so much better. They would say, you know the farmer did most of the work for me. I’m taking this ingredient and doing very little with it because it has so much flavor. You can’t buy this type of product in a supermarket. For them it’s a win-win. I’m supporting the local farmer, supporting the local community, and I’m getting the best tasting food that I can possibly get right in my backyard.
What do you feel that the collodion process photography brought out of the organic farmers? Did you feel that there was a particular relationship in place so that it was fitting to use this old world process with these farmers?
Wet plate was invented in 1851. At that time all our food was organic. It’s a process that brings us back to a time when everything was a manual process. For me, I enjoy the collodion process because it’s really about slowing down. It’s the same thing for [farmers]. Everything is done by hand on the farm, and collodion is also a process where everything is done by hand. With each person, I would spend an hour to an hour and a half photographing them taking 4-6 plates— that’s it. Each day was always different. All of the exposures were approximately 5-15 seconds long.
You have to get someone to really sit still to do an exposure of 5-15 seconds. Did you give direction to the farmers? Was there anything that you felt that worked in particular?
I don’t think you can capture someone’s soul or personality in a split second. The one thing that is very important for me is the eye contact. You see it especially in the close up photo’s, you have this farmer whose eyes are gazing right at you. I wanted the feeling of you looking at this person in the eye and reading their text as if they are speaking directly to you. Photographing someone instantly and photographing someone over a 10-15 second time period are two very different things. Imagine photographing a running stream, in a split second you freeze one moment. But if you have a ten second exposure, now you capture the life of the stream. Now you can see all this motion and you start to capture the soul of it. I found that was true with people, too.
Can you tell me about a man, he’s got a big beard and he’s wearing a cap.
That’s Ray, Ray Bradley. Yep. He’s a great farmer. In fact, he used to be the sous chef at Le Cirque. He worked at a restaurant… I think it was called the Polo in the Westbury Hotel. Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller and he all worked in the same kitchen. He is in New Paltz, New York. He’s a farmer now, but does farm to table dinners, which are just spectacular. He has Kevin Zraly, the wine guru, do pairings with the food. He is an amazing chef, his farm to table dinners sell out very quickly.
Was it different photographing the chefs compared to photographing the farmers?
I liked “the farm” as a location. You have these old barns with great wood and animals I found the location itself was a little more appealing. But no, besides that not really. It comes down to capturing the person, I try to capture the essence of who they are and that’s really what it’s about.
Do you have a favorite photo in this bunch?
Geez, no. The hardest part of this whole project was editing 136 photos to 103 which will end up in the book.
You’re doing a book. Amazing. Congratulations!
The book is being published by powerHouse Books [which] produces beautifully printed art books. The ORGANIC book will be out in November. Each spread will have a photo on one page and the story on the other. I would keep calling the book designer asking if we have room for one more farmer or chef, can we fit another one in? The people come from different backgrounds, their stories are all different, and I’ve just developed this connection with them. I feel so bad, if I take him or her out, but it has to be done. I’m happy to be getting a book of this size.
So you did everything, interviews and photographs.
Yes, I videotaped the interviews and transcribed them. So all the photos are accompanied by text, and it’s just so much great information. When I interviewed the farmers and chefs, all I kept thinking was that I wanted other people to hear this. Even when I exhibit the photographs, it’s always with some of the text. I want it to be educational. I want people to walk away from an exhibit and think about food differently. I want them to know about the Hudson Valley, which is an amazing agricultural food region, and to have a better understanding of the word, organic, which is a very misunderstood word. A lot of people are going into supermarkets gravitating towards organic, but not knowing everything behind it. It definitely sheds light on that.
There are many ways to raise awareness, but this is a unique one.
I’ve always felt that if I can get your attention to look at a photo, to then read the text, I feel like I did my job. The words and text are a great combination and I think they work well together.
You can buy his book ORGANIC Farmers and Chefs of the Hudson Valley starting in November: