Considering Cows and Ourselves in the Vermont Landscape

August 07, 2014

A trio of Holsteins graze in a Randolph pasture in this 1991 photo. (Herald File / Bob Eddy)

Vermont’s love affair with cows is long lived. European settlers establishing our state in the 1700’s chose mountains, a large pine, some sheaves of grain, and a cow for the state seal.

The bovine’s firm place at the center of Vermont identity received an Andy Warholesque update by my Middlebury classmate Woody Jackson in the 1970s. Before “going viral” was possible, Ben and Jerry’s marketing took Jackson’s Holsteins global, reasserting the dairy cow as Vermont icon.

I have thousands of cow images in my archives. Not only have I covered most of the farms in the Herald readership area, through work with the Vermont Land Trust and the Cabot Cooperative Creamery, I have photographed scores of dairy farms in every Vermont county from Massachusetts to Canada.

Even with this extensive farm coverage, however, only a few images stand apart from “the herd.” The photograph we consider today is one.

The Quieted Eye

I absolutely love early morning for photography. The entire landscape seems to be awakening. The sun has yet to burn through the fine cloud of mist covering the valley like a shawl. You can sense this moist atmosphere in the lens. There is no breeze. All the world is hushed.

These three cows were photographed at Warren Davoll’s Randolph farm just before the first day of summer in 1991.

Take a few moments to look at this scene before reading further. Is this image pleasing to your eye? If so, what factors might contribute to this?

Some images shout, assaulting the viewer, but his photograph quiets my eye. For more than a decade it has hung above my desk at The Herald. It whispers, it beckons. As I consider it, remembering my walk in that field over two decades ago, I am calmed.

Compositional Balance

This is a balanced image. Dividing it into thirds, vertically, you’ll find one cow in each section. The scene is also divided by the landscape into thirds horizontally. The cows stand at the top of the bottom third, defined by the darkened foreground rising to the left, and the field, lightened by dandelions, arching off to the right behind them.

The middle third is comprised of that lush lacy-edged line of dark forest above that slice of field. Notice how its tone matches the foreground where they come to meet to the left of the cows, framing the lighter field and giving the animals a way down and out of the photograph to the right, the direction in which two are already headed.

The final horizontal third is comprised of two more layers of forest rising up and out of the frame. There is no horizon line here between earth and sky, only the successive horizons of vegetation layered upon vegetation receding up and out of view.

Tone and Focus

There is no mistaking it; this photograph is all about the cows. Standing amidst waves of landscape, they posses the greatest tonal contrast of the entire scene. In a sea of muted grays, their trademark black and white markings draw the eye’s attention.

Additionally, the telephoto lens is focused upon the trio, articulating them from the more diffuse background and foreground elements.

The Overall View

Perhaps the most stunning element of this image is one that is easy to overlook. Save the field, there are no signs of human presence here. In my twenty-five years I can’t remember another farm shot where elements of farming are so completely absent! Gone are the fences and stone walls; gone are the telephone poles in the distance, the tractor, the hay bales, the farmer.

It’s really quite remarkable that not so much as a furrow marks this sylvan landscape. There is no silo or rooftop to be seen!

In The Beginning

Here we see cows in a setting remarkably similar to that dramatic first vista of the dinosaurs in the movie “Jurassic Park.” These are cows as we might have glimpsed them in their natural setting, centuries before domestication began.

These are oddly beautiful creatures. One feeds, oblivious of the camera; one strides languidly through the lush morning air; and one, quite dispassionately views us viewing her.

Here we begin to sense how these magnificent animals might have appeared before we farmed them. Now, perhaps we dimly behold their genetic forebears ranging the primeval savannah, gazing over at us sitting in trees, wondering what the future might hold.

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