04 October 2008

Rhondal McKinney

Untitled #1293, from Farm Families Project (1985).
Photograph © Rhondal McKinney

Midwest Landscape 947B-381. Photograph © Rhondal McKinney

Last week I posted on some really powerful landscapes by Art Sinsabaugh. That post elicited a comment suggesting that I track down Rhondal McKinney too. (Thanks ps!) Well, I've taken that excellent suggestion and here is some of his work too. You can find more here at the (cumbersome) web page of the Museum of Contemporary Photography.

What would you say about McKinney's work? Well, three things, at least. First of all, much of it occupies the intersection of portrait and landscape. It is not just that the landscapes are populated, and that the inhabitants have left traces of all sorts, as in, say, Robert Adams [1] [2]. It is that in his series of farm families he makes their portraits against the often somewhat dire and bleak landscapes where they work and make their home. Moreover, he locates them, usually centrally, in truly panoramic views of the land.

Second of all, his images impress me because they capture relationships and vistas that are disappearing. Here in Western NY the situation is much the same. The farmlands are being engulfed by development. There has been a pause - involuntary, imposed by the stagnant economy - but the farms and those who work them are an endangered species. I wonder how many of McKinney's mid-1980s farm families have managed to hold on to their farms?

So, third, when I see his portrait/landscapes as austere, I have the feeling not just of natural harshness but of political-economic harshness as well. For, as we know, development - sprawling development [1] [2] - hardly is a natural or inevitable phenomenon. Neither are the problems and stresses in our distorted and distended agricultural economy "natural." On both dimensions, and several others that impact farmers and their landscapes, politics is hard at work.
* This is a big topic. Two places to start: David Ehrenfeld. 2002. "The cow tipping point," Harper's Magazine, 305:13-20 (October) and William Grieder. 2000. "The Last Farm Crisis," The Nation (November 20). These are reproduced here and here.

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