I had planned to write an essay on Laura Wilson, but the release of yet another amazing video by Ted Forbes, this time featuring Wilson, prompted me to bring forward my own appreciation of this amazing woman and photographer by featuring her book, The Hutterites of Montana.
In her book, Wilson describes the Hutterites as people that operate ‘substantial farms’ upon which they all share the property and income. She says that the Hutterites are a ‘self-contained’ people that live on the Great Plains of USA and Canada. Wilson describes them as ‘shunning’ our ‘coveted worldly essentials’ such as TV, cars, radio etc. and certainly no dancing.
It is very evident in her book that she displays an empathetic approach to her subject; Wilson describes how she searched for a group of people with ‘a distinct regional identity’ and compared the Hutterites with the Amish in their existence, living apart from ‘homogenized America’.
It’s very interesting how Wilson describes her view of photography, which she says for her has ‘always been about trying to stave off loss – loss of place, loss of family, loss of identity’, and that she found a connection between the Hutterites and her own personal views.
I admire and empathise with Wilson and her patience and skill, who despite her desire to photograph the Hutterite way of life resisted taking photographs on her first three visits. She describes the Hutterites as being ‘watchful’ of her as they were examining her intentions. Through her persistence and trust building she was finally able to gain the permissions of Ministers to take black & white photographs of willing individuals. Over a 14-year period from 1985 to 1999 she lived amongst the Hutterites for two or three weeks at a time. It was only through her patience, understanding, respect and empathy that she was finally able to gain the necessary permissions to realize her objective. They appreciated her integrity and respect for their culture. Over the years Wilson built up trust, which gave her unprecedented access to Hutterite, colonies that hitherto had been closed to outsiders.
Of particular significance is her skills of communicating and her empathy towards her intended subject which is demonstrated during her time with Richard Avedon when researching for his book In the American West where she was able to obtain the permissions to photograph 752 of the 753 people she asked, a remarkable achievement.
Wilson describes her approach to the project by explaining that she needed the photographs to tell the story on the faces of her subjects to reveal the ‘story within’. During her time with the Hutterites she became worried and concerned for the future of the colonies; how much longer would they be able to resist the pressures of ‘the most powerful culture in the world?’ She saw her quest as a way to record and preserve the essence and majesty of these people.
In her book Wilson describes how the Hutterites are able to trace their origins back to 1528 and a band of refugees from the Austrian Tyrol. The Hutterites got their name from their early leader Jakob Hutter.
Her book consists of a set of beautiful black & white images of which the majority are environmental portraits, these very successfully capture and convey the majesty and pride of their way of life. She features heavily on children, who appear always to be happy, confident and relaxed. She uses only natural light and the images are well thought-out and thoughtfully composed scenes.
Wilson’s landscapes are well crafted and convey the vastness and majesty of the Great Plains upon which the Hutterites live and they reflect their early existence as a group in Russia. Her photographs effortlessly capture the simple elegance of the Hutterite homes and basic furniture and possessions and she sets the scenes with her establishing shots of the Great Plains and surrounding countryside.
Laura Wilson demonstrates extemporary camera craft by taking advantage of natural materials to create frames for her formal and observed portraits, yet still manages to capture the energy, excitement and motion of her subjects. The viewer of Wilson’s portraits is made fully aware of the fierce pride and independence that the Hutterites feel for their faith and way of life.
Wilson has won several awards including the Royal Photographic Society – book of the year 2004 for Avedon at Work and her work has appeared in The New York Times magazine, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Marie Currie and Texas Monthly. She has also lectured on photography at Harvard, the International Center of photography in New York City, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the University of Texas.
Wilson, L. (2000) The Hutterites of Montana. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.