Vermont People was an accident. In 1989 I decided to do a book on Vermont for our Bicentennial in 1991. I found, to my surprise, most of the photos in my file; I always have photographed people and kept notes. I rarely made prints, just contacts and notes and put them away. I printed those photographs and made additional portraits in 1990, put together a dummy but could not find any publisher who wanted a book of Vermont people. They preferred color books of red barns and red and orange leaves.So I mortgaged the house and did it myself--thats the Vermont way of doing things. So far I have sold 12,000 books, mostly in Vermont.
That experience charged me up and for some reason, I dont know why, I decided to do the Great Plains and I headed west on the summer solstice of 1993, pulling a tiny, 1968 Airstream behind my Cherokee. Seven months, four trips and 35,000 miles later I finished my research, funded by a grant and my Image Bank stock sales. In 1996 I published the book because no major publisher wanted the book--they hate photography and text books, particularly if they are about a place--a regional place is even worse. People of the Great Plains was published in 1996 and I have sold 4,000.
In 1997 I was looking at the Vermont and Plains books and suddenly realized how similar yet different some of the photographs were. I certainly didnt plan it that way. From that comparison I built a 48 print exhibition called Similarities-Dissimilarities, Vermont People, People of the Great Plains. It is now hung at the Arts Exchange in North Bennington, Vermont. I hope it will travel to other areas.
I can think of no better way to communicate the soul of America than through photographs of people. Look at history and see how fascinating the pictures are of people, whether they be Paul Strands photographs of New England, Solomon Butchers photographs from the Plains or Walker Evans visual description of the South and Cuba.
Too many young people search out the poor, the starving, the disadvantaged, the imprisoned, or whatever makes these people camera fodder. Then these budding photographers travel the world in search of misery. They are egged on by grants and awards and editors and workshops. They could do much better if they stayed at home and photographed just ordinary people and life around them, and when they learn about people, then travel elsewhere. However, there is no news value in the ordinary, there is no glamour in traveling to Vermont or North Dakota rather than the Sudan or Mongolia; in the end, there is no money or reputation being built by shooting whats next door. Sometimes I think it is guilt that makes young photographers search for a disadvantaged theme and sometimes I think it is smugness that allows them to photograph somebody less privileged then themselves. All I do is compare their photographs against, say, Salgados and I say, where is the humanity in these young photographers?
I dont have much of an agenda. I shoot straight documentary photographs of people. Actually, I let them take their own photographs, so to speak. I do not force my personality on them. They are my extended family, those I photograph, and I try to honor them within the so very short time we all have to become part of our family tree.