David Welch's The New Farmers as New Radicals

Every one of us has a distinct interpretation of home. Often though, it is the dwelling in which we feel the most comfortable, it is a second skin that soaks up memories, nutrients, and grows with time, made stronger or weaker, and protects us from the elements. A space makes up these dwellings, but a space in which stories are built, where plants are fed and reciprocate, becomes place, and a place is our home, it is near to us.

In The New Farmers, David Welch photographs his homestead of Martha’s Vineyard and the contemporary agricultural efforts taking place year round. The Island, which is a modest 100 square miles (260 km2), is home to sheep breeders, apiculturists, vegetable farmers, orchard keepers, and other tenders of comestibles and livestock. Shooting with large format cameras, Welch explores a community that literally thrives off its soil and feeds each other, fostering an interconnected environment. His on-going series has received a grant from the Martha’s Vineyard Center for Visual Arts, and excerpts were included in the Houston Center for Photography exhibition, Sea Food: Contemporary Photography and the Ways We Eat.

Welch’s photographs do not depict the pastoral or the idyll, though the idea (and here the proof) of a local economy is quite beautiful. Farming is difficult and requires dedication, appealing to those who view the landscape as an activity – a way of seeing the world at large. The New Farmers does not shy away from the messy efforts that are required to live such a whole and sustainable life. However, Welch still pays homage to the tradition of landscape photography by including scenes of vast gardens and lone structures, yet they remain intimate, displaying the value that is placed upon the island. His portraits are honest, portraying how place and identity go hand-in-hand. In fact, there is a wonderful relationship between the landscapes and portraits, reminding the viewer that food is an item of origin and return, cycling through the people and their land.

An image of a young woman with a pink hat and oversized apron stands serenely in the shade, pausing for the moment Welch took her portrait. The glow that blankets the field behind her becomes dappled in the foreground as enough light hits the green apron to catch a splatter of blood dripping down its lower half. A single feather clings near her hand as more bloodied plumes are strewn across the grass. It is her expression of quiet confidence that really makes me pause; her innocence shines through the starfish pendant hanging from her neck, but is transformed into a radiant energy, and is appropriately titled, Zen.

Farmers are radicals; they are avant-gardes while simultaneously trying to maintain a steady life based on the cycles of the land. The Latin source of the word radical literally means root, of going to the origin, the essential; while the contemporary context means to vary from the ordinary. The modern farmer is a radical in every sense of the word, and those who live as new radicals represent a greater trend that is taking place across the country and in many other areas of the world. People of all ages are joining apiaries, becoming wool shearers, revitalizing old orchards, and raising livestock in order to better their economy and to live without the commercial farms that are often times a detriment to our land and its people.

David Welch also represents a breed of radicals, as islanders, and washashores. By keeping to a tradition of roots and currents that brought them to their homes, they maintain a history of culture and place while encouraging the growth of a landscape and economy.