Capturing farm life on film before time takes its harvest

MICHAEL OLESKER

April 07, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Joan and David Hagan photograph our yesterdays before they vanish completely into the past. The farms and the countryside are slipping from view. The real estate developers pave over paradise and put up the future.

In "The Farm: An American Living Portrait," the Hagans have put a hold on time. Slipping their cameras across the countrysides of several states, their book of photos captures not only wintry farmhouses whose creaky bones you can hear moaning up from the pages, but faces out of Norman Rockwell and landscapes that look like symphonies set to color.

In Westminster sits a log spring house that might have been there since the dawn of agriculture. In Lancaster County, Pa., an Amish family hooks up a team of horses the way farmers have done it for a few hundred years.In Queenstown, here's a water pump you still have to work by hand.

So much of it is slowly disappearing -- not just the hand pumps, but the farms themselves and the green and brown acreage all around them and the pace of life itself. A generation of farm kids attuned to television and laugh tracks wants a quicker rhythm. How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm? The present-tense moves too quickly for the past to keep up.

"You walk into a barn," David Hagan was saying last week, "and you see where the place has been. On the wall is a horseshoe that's all worn out. There's the collar they use to hitch horses up. It's left over from another era, but it's still here, still in use. You can see history in the barns' coats of paint."

The dying 20th century, with its shopping malls, its highways, its cookie-cutter housing tracts, seems to pay this stuff no notice, other than to level it. The Hagans, who live near Norrisville, in Harford County, wanted to capture it while it's still here.

This is part-time work for them. David Hagan runs a computer at General Motors' Broening Highway Plant, and he and his wife run a portrait photography operation in Harford County. (You can order their book by calling the studio, 879-4951.)

They found a publisher -- Schiffer Publishing, of West Chester, Pa. -- and lugged their cameras across Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Delaware and Maine, taking some 3,000 snapshots and finally using more than 200 for "The Farm: An American Living Portrait."

"That whole way of life is going pretty fast," David Hagan said. "One of the barns we photographed has become a housing development. Three of the barns have burned down. The spring houses where they got the water are gone.

"There was a farmer on the Eastern Shore who said, 'Sure, there's still some farmers left, but look at us. We're all getting old.' The kids aren't interested, the work's too hard. He

said, 'You've gotta tell people, something's wrong. We're gonna lose all this.' "

The Hagans' photos show us, in way that raw numbers on farm acreage and soybean production cannot, just what we're leaving behind: an intimacy with nature itself, a less frantic pace of life, a feel for our very own survival on a fragile planet.

"These places are just slowly disappearing," Joan Hagan said. "On every farm we visited, you could see signs of the past. You'd see a dinner bell in the yard and imagine it ringing out a long time ago. Or you'd see an old hand gas pump covered with rust, with the paint cracked and peeling."

What also struck the Hagans were the people still living on the land, holding on to a way of life that now seems foreign to generations with no frame of reference for the rural life.

"These people," said David Hagan, "are the backbone of our country. It's still a life where a handshake means something. They tell you they'll meet you tomorrow, they mean they'll meet you tomorrow. And we're losing that, we're losing those values."

An Amish family invited the Hagans into their home at day's end. Dinner was milk and cracker soup.

"They just put saltines into a bowl of milk," Joan Hagan said. "They'd milked their cow, and they had to use up the milk."'

Nobody's suggesting the nation change its diet to milk and cracker soup. But the story illustrates a simplicity, and a sturdiness, uncommon to the final days of the century.

"We wanted to capture it while we could," said David Hagan. "Being a photographer, you're not just recording something, you're painting with a camera. We wanted to stir people. We want people to stop and think.

"You know, we met this one farmer who's still out there cutting his corn by hand, and he's in his 80s. And we were leaving, and he put his arm around us and cried. He said, 'Thank you for sharing my farm with me.' "

It's more than that. The Hagans are trying to share those farms, and those landscapes, and that vanishing way of life, with everybody while there's still time.

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