This past Friday Oglethorpe Gallery hosted the opening of Brett Schenning’s thesis exhibit, Inheritance. The MFA photography candidate presented 30 photographic images that chronicle the work and lives of small farmers in the southeastern US, hailing from farms in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. The images, shot over the past year using a large format 8×10 camera, were contact printed using the platinum-palladium printing process.
“At its heart Inheritance is a narrative,” writes Schenning in his artist statement. The stories in work are layered and weave together the histories of multiple people and generations. During the opening, Schenning led viewers from piece to piece, lighting up as he told the stories behind his images.
“My father built all these frames using his father’s tools and the knowledge of carpentry he passed down to him,” Schenning said. “I’m so proud, so proud of him.” The artist’s father salvaged the wood for the frames from a barn in Schenning’s home state of Wisconsin. Encased in the rustic frames are the visual stories of the people, their farms, the soil, and the food they grow for local communities to consume.
The images are honest and gritty in the best way possible, not at all ugly, but warm with a friendliness that seems distinctly Midwestern. Schenning treats every subject, both animate and inanimate, with a respectful reverence. His portraits are raw and real; each subject’s eyes show the seriousness with which they have taken on the responsibility of continuing a tradition.
“This isn’t just a job,” Schenning said, “Their fathers passed on knowledge and values to them and now they will pass it onto future generations. It continues.”
“The heart of the show is Walker Farms,” Schenning said. He visited this farm, located 50 miles away in Sylvania, GA, consistently throughout his year-long shooting process. “It takes time to develop trust,” he said. “They opened their hearts and time to me.”
This trust is evident in every image; the closeness with which he photographs the subject’s hands, the honest look the subjects hold in the portraits, the intimacy that is revealed in the images inside the farmers’ homes. “There’s a vulnerability in the work,” Schenning said, “And I want to honor them for doing it.”
The conceptual unity of the show is capped off by Schenning’s use of the platinum-palladium printing process. A time-consuming effort that involves hand coating paper and long exposure times under UV light, Schenning let the printing of Inheritance take over his entire apartment, from the kitchen to the bedroom. “It was a herculean effort,” Schenning said looking around at the work.
The photographer has clearly mastered this process; the prints have a consistent subtle warm glow. More than producing beautiful prints, this process feeds the project conceptually, allowing Schenning to connect himself to the farmers and consequently lift their work into the realm of art.
Inheritance, while clearly not a political show, takes a very strong stance. The work has its feet firmly dug into the freshly tilled soil, holding onto the traditions and values that have been slowly eroding away for decades. Thinking that Schenning is speaking for the farmers doesn’t begin to grasp the conceptual depth of the work. His process and consideration mirrors his subjects’, creating a continuity that is forceful in its depth and quiet in its approach. He is standing strong right beside his subjects, refusing to let our history die, continuing a tradition that elevates the human hand, our collective knowledge and the relationships that are built around it.
To see more of Brett Schenning’s work visit http://www.brettschenning.com/