Gallery: Furrow and Slice
Furrow and Slice
The name of the series comes from the terms used in plowing with a mouldboard plow. The furrow is the ditch left by the blade or share of the plow; the slice is the ribbon of dirt that is lifted up and flipped over into the furrow from the previous pass of the plow.
For 20 years or so, every time we went down to Marty’s mother’s in Hickory, PA., we passed a farm outside of town that invariably caught my attention. Fact is, it would have been hard to miss, the highway made a curve right through the middle of it, but it was more than that. There was something special about the land or landscape—the spirit of the place—that, for lack of a better term, spoke to me. I always told myself that if I ever started to photograph again, this would be a place to come to.
At the time I hadn’t photographed since the early 80s when, holed up in my mother’s attic, I sold my cameras and equipment so I could finish the novel that became THERE’S SOMETHING IN THE BACK YARD. But in the late 1990s, my writing had reached an impasse, and working with the negatives for the series that When There Was Steel—learning how to print them digitally with quad-tone carbon-pigment inks that gave the same quality as my original platinum prints—I became interested in working with a camera again. At first I only photographed around the house in the series that I call Images from a Small Space, but gradually I ventured outside to the larger world.
My first thought was the farm on the road to Hickory. But how to get permission to photograph there? I couldn’t just walk up to the farmhouse and say, “Hi, mind if I crawl all over your place and take some pictures?” could I? As a matter of fact I could, because I had an intermediary in the person of Marty’s Mom, the Legendary Chub. I had learned long before that if I ever came under suspicion in the area all I had to do was say that I was the son-in-law of Chub Beard and I was immediately counted among the select. It seemed that Martha Beard—or “Mrs. Beard,” said with reverence and a slight sing-song such as would be spoken by a class of 2nd Graders: “Good Mor-ning Mrs. Be-ard.”—had taught 90% of the area’s population, and those she hadn’t didn’t count because they obviously hadn’t lived there long enough to know what was what.
Chub did in fact have the owner of the farm, Chip Cowden (don’t call him Albert), in class once upon a time, and as soon as I invoked her name permission was granted. However, that’s a bit facetious, and misleading, because it doesn’t take into account the natural graciousness and kindness of Chip and JoAnne and their son Adam. As I began to visit the farm regularly, it was apparent that the Cowdens accepted me and my work from their own good selves, not because I knew someone, and made me feel almost part of an extended family. Their concern for what I was trying to achieve was inspiring—one time I realized Chip had held the cows in the barn beyond the normal time because he didn’t want to mess up any photographs I might be taking. When he learned that a book I was trying to get published had been rejected, he looked me in the eyes and said, “Don’t get discouraged. Giving up’s the easy part.” He said it like a man who knew firsthand what he was talking about.
On my earlier website, the Cowden Valley Farm series was a group all to themselves. But as I worked on the series, it took on another dimension and I began to write a series of stories—one page “short shorts,” as they’re known in literary circles—each story facing one of the photographs. As the number of stories grew, I started to photograph other farms in the area to expand the vision of the images—I didn’t want anyone to think the stories were about any particular person or any particular farm. It was a rather unique situation for a writer who is also a photographer: fictional characters in real locations. Later, the form developed to include longer short stories, 10 or 12 pages, but keeping the format of a page of text facing a photograph, the groupings becoming like sections of a novella.