A century and more ago, the vast majority of Americans lived and worked on farms. From that era date the barn of one Abel Bristol, photographed in this book, and the diary of his contemporary and neighbor, Philo Blinn, also printed here. The two men lived out their days amid the unremarkable circumstances of ordinary farm labor, and precisely in that lies their interest for us today - for they exemplify a way of life in America that has now all but vanished, yet should remain a living part of our heritage.
The finely grained photographs of the barn, which still stands in East Chatham, New York, were taken recently by John Szarkowski, Director Emeritus of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In his images of the barn, he shows this object of craft to have a simple dignity of its own and at the same time a satisfying, complex structure. It is a vestige of a time when such elaborate works of hand labor were so commonplace as to be taken for granted.
Interwoven with the photographs are selections from the neighbor's diary, written as Philo Blinn and his family pursued their daily lives in an age marked by the Civil War. The vivid scenes he recorded are episodic and diverse: the daily round of farm work; the birth (and death) of a child who came unexpectedly to her parents late in their lives; moments of meditation and tranquility amid worry over crops and livestock; and, again and again; the diarist's ongoing, silent debate with the local minister's weekly sermons. Through the decades that Blinn chronicled run continuing threads of human interest that make for a lively and often moving reading experience.
The diary and photographs together give a clear-eyed sense of rural life a century ago - its joys, its sorrows, and its mundane realities. They suggest what it meant, in a younger America, to labor on the earth.
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John Szarkowski was Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, for three decades and is now Director Emeritus.
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