Alphabet of Light, #13, by Kirsten Rian (Jon Edwards)
Photograph by Jon Edwards
“I am a product of my times and my life experience. Jimi Hendrix, The Filmore East (attending Woodstock as a 17 year-old), the Anti-War movement, and attending a very liberal college after growing up in a very conservative family and area. Before college, I didn't know what liberalism was. Once I explored modern (1970) photography (Arbus, Friedlander, Winogrand, Krims, etc.), Political Economics/Science, and travelled the country as an undergraduate on a co-op job (ranging from pumping gas, delivering an ‘underground’ community paper in Portland, Oregon, to a prisoners' rights project in Jackson, Mississippi) my course was set, and I've never looked back. After similar experiences in law school, and after practicing civil rights and environmental law, I'm now returning to my rural, photographic roots.
But I carry all I've learned and seen along the way with me to every photo shoot,” Jon Edwards tells me.
“Yes, photography is all about light, but when it works, it's also about evoking emotions.”
I first met Jon, years ago, at a portfolio review event in San Francisco. He spread black and white images across the table between us of an elderly man in Maine, John Ryan, who sustained himself by harvesting apples and seaweed and working the land. There was nothing flashy or egotistical about these photographs. They were honest and direct. As a photographer, Jon got out of the way and allowed the images to tell their own story. He showed up and shot and trusted in the eloquence of reckoning between the actual and the metaphor, the visible and that beyond the frame.
“Like a meaningful poem, it sets off a personal emotion, although it may be a more universal thought or image. Perhaps if a photograph incites a past emotion, the viewer may realize that it is a distant feeling that is no longer felt. For example, I have heard from many viewers that my image, Praying to the Pie Gods, reminds them of their childhood when they would engage in a physical activity with a grandparent, and perhaps like the image, one that they no longer have time for, or can remember the last time they participated in --- like baking a pie from scratch. Do we connect to the image because we feel a loss in our everyday hectic lives, a relief that at least somewhere people still make the time, at considerable ‘expense’ as we define success in our society, or another emotion that we can't put our fingers on, but know on some level we're missing?”
I am about seven, my mother is crouched next to me and gently drawing the trowel across the soil to make a trench about a quarter of an inch deep. Her line is straight. She shakes a seed pack into her hand and holds her palm out to me. I remember it is difficult for me to pick up the carrot seeds with my tiny, chubby fingers, I try grabbing them, and she shows me how to pinch, squeezing my thumb and forefinger tightly. Then she takes my wrist and guides it to directly over the indentation she’d made in the dirt and shows me how to now rub my pinched fingers together slowly to release the seeds. They fall like crumbs. I lean over and peer into the ground, my face inches away, I can smell the damp, musty earth, but I cannot see the seeds, they have blended in with the compost, manure, fireplace ash, and topsoil. I am disappointed, I think this is a bust. I can’t be sure the seeds landed where they were supposed to, where I had intended. And on top of that, I can’t comprehend how an entire carrot, with green top and all, can possibly emerge from that teency speck that looks like a caraway from my rye bread toast.
My mother places a popsicle stick straight up like a flagpole at the start of the seed line. When we’ve emptied the packet, she rips a hole at the bottom and pushes it over the stick, marking our row. We skim our hands across the dirt to cover the seeds. My mother tells me to fill up my kid-sized tin watering can, and she shows me how to keep the can moving back and forth like a cello bow so puddles don’t accumulate and drown out the seeds.
Each morning I go out to the backyard and check the garden. I’m worried one day when it rains hard rain, but my mother talks to me about roots and says the seeds have sprouted some by now, so they can hold on to the ground and just drink it all up. I can’t believe it when finally slips of green punctuate the brown.
I ask Jon how he got started photographing John.
“John picked apples at an organic farm where we have been members (CSA) for over 20 years. I originally photographed him pruning trees in the winter, and a couple of years later asked if I could accompany him harvesting seaweed...
John very much reminded me of people I had the good fortune of meeting, as a child, in the Adirondack Mountains, where for several generations my family summered. He especially reminded me of my best friend's uncle who had a shop in a log cabin where he whittled birds and worked on antique guns, i.e., mussel-loaders and old Winchesters.”
“I've also learned some very practical things from the people I photograph. How to raise and keep chickens without an elaborated setup, organic gardening, how to be more self-sufficient, and a love of the ocean.”
“In part, I remain committed to documentary photography because I see a way of life, and not just a distant one on the coast of Maine, that is in jeopardy. It's a natural transition from my practicing environmental law for over 25 years. To me, it's really the same thing, I'm just expressing it in a new medium, one that others outside of the courts and government can see. It's my hope that some people will, rather than just be nostalgic for a vanishing culture, see that we are careening out of control on a total unsustainable path. I constantly hear about vanished fisheries, and have seen hand harvesting of seaweed go by the boards as underwater lawn mowers have taken over. One can only imagine the environmental impact that such mechanized cutting will produce. I stay interested in photography because, while it's capable of many, many things today, it's still capable of showing what we are doing as a society, our environmental and human impacts. Maybe it can't change those, but it can convey the emotional cost of what we are doing and maybe it can, eventually, be part of the reason people act.”
It’s a cliche to say the earth doesn’t forget. But there is a single patch of land on the west side of town that my mother has stood on for 45 years. She skirts it most of the time now, the bulk of her days spent in her car; but occasionally she stops running and returns to what she knows, gets her trowel out of the garage, buys some starts, remembers a piece of herself. She bends down, touches the soil, and the soil touches back. It is the only thing left that does.
“One last thing I've learned while photographing. There is a lot to be learned from the older generations. I've certainly learned much about life, rural life, what matters in the long run etc. I think we lose much by not having a closer relationship with our elders. John always says to me, "why do you find anything I'm doing of interest? Look around, my life is a wreck, all I have is junk and what can I offer my kids? The answer is so clear to me, and it's why I and some of my most respected contemporaries, the farmer where he used to work, want to be with him. He offers hope that no matter what life throws at us, we can stand up to it and at the same time inspire others to do the same.”
To view more of Jon’s work, visit: http://www.jonedwardsphotographer.com/
To view a multimedia piece by Daylight on Jon, visit: http://daylightbooks.org/news/2011-new-multimedia-jon-edwards