Still Life

Laura Wilson Peels Back the Curtain of a Reclusive Christian Sect

I photographed the faces that moved me, not just any faces, but the faces that revealed a story within, including the contradictions,  Laura Wilson explains in <i>Hutterites of Montana</i>. Photographs are taken, after all, not given.
"I photographed the faces that moved me, not just any faces, but the faces that revealed a story within, including the contradictions," Laura Wilson explains in Hutterites of Montana. "Photographs are taken, after all, not given."

In 1978, Richard Avedon came to Dallas for an exhibition of his photographs at the Dallas Museum of Art. At one of the dinners in his honor, a young housewife who was in attendance heard the photographer say that he had received a commission from the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth to do a photo series about the American West. Fascinated, this woman went home and wrote Avedon a letter asking to be his assistant. "As you can imagine, I wrote a couple of drafts," Laura Wilson now recalls. The final draft must have been persuasive, because Avedon called her up and asked her to begin, immediately, by arranging a shoot at the Sweetwater rattlesnake roundup. It is an interesting anecdote to ponder in light of Wilson's latest book, Hutterites of Montana (Yale University Press, $39.95), a series of vivid, black-and-white photographs of a reclusive Christian sect that officially frowns on photography as an usurpation of God's image-making power. Wilson has an instinct for penetrating insular, tightly knit societies, whether it is the coterie around the world's most famous photographer or a group of cowboys on a West Texas ranch.

Wilson was raised in a small town in Massachusetts south of Boston. The country lifestyle of her childhood "was like the rural New England described by Robert Frost," she says. "There was a strong humanistic tradition, in contrast to, say, growing up in the Texas countryside back then -- I think it was Larry McMurtry who says somewhere that, where he grew up, there were only 15 books in the whole town. In the part of Massachusetts that I grew up in, there was a very strong respect for the arts, for reading, for culture. I also experienced something unique in growing up within a large, extended family. There were always cousins over. This is one of the ways I related to the Hutterites, who are also very organized around extended families."

Rose Anna Walter and her cousins Linda and Debbie Walter  on a homemade swing. Surprise Creek Colony (Dariusleut), 1991.
Rose Anna Walter and her cousins Linda and Debbie Walter on a homemade swing. Surprise Creek Colony (Dariusleut), 1991.

Wilson majored in painting in college, but her plans changed when she met her husband, an advertising executive, and the two of them moved to Dallas. She dedicated herself, then, to raising a family. Her sons, Owen, Luke, and Andrew, have had fairly well-publicized careers in film, writing and acting in such movies as Bottle Rocket and Rushmore. As a wife and a mother, she of course took family pictures, but she didn't think of photography as her medium. Due to her painting background, however, she distrusted "arty" photography. "It was the photojournalists, like Capa, Cartier-Bresson, or David Duncan Douglas, whose work I've always found absorbing." She also mentions Jacques Lartique, a French "outsider" photographer, as a favorite.

During the five years she spent as Avedon's assistant, she learned a lot from watching him work. She did not, however, discuss photography with him. "We discussed writing. However, one of the most important things I learned from him about photography is that you have something to say."

She kept a diary, and made photographs of Avedon making photographs. She did all the research for the project. Critics have sometimes complained that Avedon's In the American West photographs of coal miners, drifters, and farmers have a certain cruelty, but Wilson has a much different idea about the project. "We were looking at all these hard jobs people do that support the country," she says.

Still Life

Her next project took the much stereotyped cowboy for its object. Her husband was working with David McCullough, the historian (Truman), on a film project. Laura took him out to see the Watt Matthews ranch at Lambshead. McCullough, enthused, suggested that she do a book about the place. Watt Matthews of Lambshead was published by the Texas Historical Society in 1989. There are obvious affinities with In the American West, but the photographs are recognizably in Wilson's own vernacular, which is much less harsh and head-on than Avedon's.

The American West has traditionally had, as its photographic referent, the landscapes of, say, Ansel Adams -- a paean to the Yosemites of unfallen grandeur. While Wilson is emphatically not interested in that tradition, Lambshead and her Hutterite project did give her a vivid sense of how people fit into the landscape, how nature impinges on the humans working within it, how the work of filtering climate, ground, and effort through bodies and faces changes people. If Wilson does not share Adams' romantic sense of pristine nature, she does convey a strong sense of loss, both in her Lambshead portfolio and in her Hutterite photographs. "Loss" is the first term Wilson mentions when asked about her general themes. Loss is immanent in the authenticity she seeks: "I loved the way Lambshead preserves the cowboy culture in a very pure way. I am also fascinated with how close we are, in time, to the frontier. Watt Matthews was 12 when the last Comanche chief, Qanah Parker, was captured. One of his uncles carried a stone arrowhead in his back for 15 years, which he'd received in an Indian attack."

The Hutterite project has been much slower to put together. It goes back to 1983, when Wilson was still working with Avedon. She was taken to the Springdale colony in Montana by a local nurse, Olive Losee. Although Losee wasn't a Hutterite herself, she was one of the rare outsiders who had significant contact with the Hutterites. Otherwise, they distrust, and are distrusted by, the farmers around them. Wilson was not only an outsider, but one with a camera. Originally, there was no possibility that she could take pictures of the Hutterites, but she persisted. The breakthrough came when one of the Hutterite ministers was persuaded that black-and-white photographs weren't "real" photographs. "They decided I wasn't a real photographer," Wilson laughs. "For them, real photographers use color; real photographers are like the ones in National Geographic."

Still Life

It is interesting to compare Wilson's pictures with those Avedon took of Hutterites that areincluded in In The American West. Avedon crowds the frame with his figures. They rear up as though they had been suddenly picked out by headlights on some dark country road -- an effect promoted by his eternal white, stark backgrounds. In the visual field, we have no other clue to their origin or future than the clothes on their backs, the dirt on their skin, their matted hair, their leers and stares and strained smiles. Facial expression in photography is usually the natural language that connects the subject to the photographer, and, presumably, the audience beyond him; in Avedon's portraits it is as if that language is dead. With Avedon, facial expression marks the ultimate incommunicado of solitude.

Wilson's pictures, in contrast, let the texture of the world back in, so that even her close-ups are grounded in a habitus, a field of practices; the immediacy of the portrait indicates the continuation of life outside it. Her matter-of-fact text is an essential complement to the pictures. Otherwise, it would be easy to overlook small, telling details. For instance, the glasses that the women wear in many of the photographs have special significance for a group that bans jewelry. Glasses become a shy sort of sumptuary object. The control over adornment extends to money, too.

"They don't want individuals to have money," Wilson says. "Allowances are incredibly small -- $10, $15 a month. Most of the household goods -- clothes, food, shelter -- are homemade. Money is really to get some small thing. Birthday cards, for instance, are really popular. They are worried about individuals getting too independent in the community. They don't even want pets, because they are afraid pets will make the children competitive."

Hutterite children used to be named Sarah, David, and Joseph, Wilson writes.  Now names are more secular and fanciful: Crystal, Cody, Tiffany, and Tyler.
Hutterite children used to be named Sarah, David, and Joseph, Wilson writes. "Now names are more secular and fanciful: Crystal, Cody, Tiffany, and Tyler."

The Hutterites' mistrust for outsiders is mirrored by the prejudices against the Hutterites held by some of their neighbors, farmers who can't pay their help even $15 a month. Wilson reports that a common complaint among neighbors is that the Hutterites' success is based on "slave labor." There is also the perception that the Hutterites don't pay taxes -- which, according to Wilson, is untrue.

She searches for ways to describe how completely out of the mainstream the Hutterites are, and comes up with a comparison that seems entirely apt. "I was working on a shoot on some islands in the South Pacific once, and the atmosphere, at least the isolation, was very much like that among the Hutterite colonies. It is the way your culture gives you ways to think about things, and say things. The islanders, to find out about me, would ask: What island are you from?"

In a sense, the Hutterite colonies, which are also scattered around the Northwest, are islands too. The closed societies which so fascinate Wilson are insular in the way biogeographers use the word -- distinct niches of evolutionary development. Wilson's "islands" are sociologically isolated -- in temperament, customs, and, finally, appearances. It is as if her photographs are responding, on the unconscious level, to the question: What island are you from?

Wilson is now embarked on another project involving a marginalized community: She is photographing along the U.S.-Mexico border, from San Diego to Brownsville. "It is a big subject," she says, "and a good story. That is something I have learned -- what a good story is." end story

Laura Wilson will be at Borders Books & Music (4477 S. Lamar) on Saturday, Feb. 10, at 3:30pm.

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Hutterites of Montana, Laura Wilson, Richard Avedon, In the American West, Watt Matthews of Lambshead

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