Photographing Vermont’s Fifth Season

April 18, 2013

 

MUD MONSTER | Jack Drysdale of San Antonio, Texas, was fit to be tied Tuesday, when his car was swallowed up by Mud Season on Braintree Hill. “I came home for sugaring, but completely forgot about the mud,” Drysdale muttered as Stockwell’s Garage arrived to tow him out. Lennie Stockwell required assistance from his son Kip and employee John Olmstead to dig and tug the car back to solid ground. “Once we located the bumper it was a pretty straight forward procedure,” commented Stockwell, “but we were worried there was a Volkswagon Rabbit under Mr. Drysdale’s car. (Herald File / Bob Eddy)

 

We all know the old joke about Vermont having two seasons; winter and one week of tough sledding. In fact, Vermont’s beauty lies largely in its changing seasons, and the one I’m in is generally the one I love best. 

The exception to this rule is Vermont’s fifth season, mud season. Many folks from other parts of the country think this addition to the traditional quartet of spring, summer, fall, winter, is another Vermont joke. Living in the “land of pavement,” they don’t experience mud season at all. Braintree, however, like many small Vermont towns, has no paved roads except for the state highways passing through. 

Generally, those of us who live off pavement wouldn’t have it any other way. Nothing, in my estimation, beats a well-maintained gravel road. Maybe I don’t like the way our cars are flocked with dust, but a well crowned and ditched country road is a thing of beauty. 

For four to six weeks a year, however, as winter transitions to spring, our back roads become choked with mud. Some years are worse than others, but even in a good year, there are locations so muddy a four-wheel drive with high clearance is the only vehicle getting through. We like to talk about immense snowfalls here in Vermont; after that, mud season experiences are the stuff of legend.

Back in 1993, events conspired to create a small bit of folkloric history. It was a particularly bad year for mud. 

Added to this, April 1 was a publication day for, The Herald, and we decided to have a little fun. 

The towing crew in this photograph is from Stockwell’s Garage on Braintree Hill. The driver of the buried car is Jack Drysdale, former editor and publisher of The Herald. The car is, in fact, nothing but a roof with glass that we paid to have removed from an aging auto by Kevin Williams up at Especially Imports, a local garage. 

A Tradition Begins

We ran the photograph on the front page along with ten completely fictitious stories, and people believed it. It was our very first “April Fool” front page, and the photograph helped it become a longstanding tradition.

Since that time, the image has become a celebrated icon of Vermont’s legendary mud season, appearing in Vermont life and on the cover of the book, “Fast Lane on a Dirt Road.” I have sold more prints of this image than any other. 

I attribute this photograph’s appeal to the fact that, despite being a fiction, it accurately and humorously portrays the feeling of mud season. Let’s take a second look.

First, it should be acknowledged this is not a news image. The chicanery behind this creation would have gotten me fired on any regular news day. It’s artificiality takes it from the realm of the free press and places it in the realm of art, or perhaps advertising. In some ways, constructing an image like this isn’t so different from photographing a new car model for a national ad campaign. We are telling a story; our success lies in getting the details right and in conveying them clearly.

Location is key. Not only was I able to find a truly massively muddy road, but placing the camera below the level of the car, and shooting uphill, emphasized the mud even more. 

Lens selection is very important. I used a 200mm telephoto for this scene. This pulls the background closer. Waves of mud crowding the foreground are echoed and framed by massive maples in back. A tripod enabled a long exposure with the f-stop at 22, keeping the entire scene in focus. Everything is collapsing here, tumbling down the hill toward the viewer. You can feel the mud flowing.

Jack Drysdale and I had a great time that day. As we traveled to the shot location with the car roof on the back of the pick-up, together we composed the back-story for the scene. Our cutline is reprinted here with the original photograph.

The willingness of Jack Drysdale and the Stockwell crew to enter wholeheartedly into the fiction was essential. I photographed with medium format and 35mm cameras, over 70 frames in all, and Jack was in it from start to finish. His enthusiasm shows here in the way he’s bent into an incredulous parenthesis (echoed by the fellow shoveling mud) with his questioning mouth hanging agape. Wearing his trademark tweed jacket, tie and hat, Mr. Drysdale looks every inch an educated news editor, a trusted scion of society. As such, he’s the perfect foil for our little joke. 

We see the whole scene through his eyes, and because he can’t believe what has happened to his car, we believe the story.

Of course it doesn’t hurt the believability that Stockwell’s wrecker is awash in mud. The fellow with the shovel, Lennie Stockwell, towing hook in hand, his son Kip, up on the truck ready to start the winching. Not one, or two, but three fellows working to free this car; this is a big deal!

One final detail is sells the fiction. Notice that the rear window glass reflects the sky and maples above. Removing the roof, glass intact, was difficult. The reflection, however, reinforces the notion that this really is a whole car lost to the travails of this season of mud.

So here’s a toast to Jack Drysdale, no longer with us, and to Vermont’s venerable mud season, which still is; it is uniquely ours, and for that we love it.  

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