Annie Burke: Vermont's Great Dairy Woman
I just learned that Annie Burke passed away on April 11. This iconic Vermont farmer was the subject of many memorable photographs. She was, in a word, a photographer's dream.
I was visiting with Ethan Hubbard, looking at some of his prized images of Vermonters, when I learned of Annie's death. Ethan had three of her in his collection; all of them beauties.
Why is it that some people don't photograph well and some don't photograph poorly? The Hollywood 'screen test' is very real; some people 'light up the lens.'
Most of us have what we call 'a good angle' for the lens. I took a portrait of a woman recently who told me to take her image “from above, with me fully facing the lens.” She was right, of course; all the planes and parts of her face fell beautifully into place from that perspective. Other views couldn't compare.
Annie Burke was that rare sort who photographed beautifully from every angle. Such persons are exceedingly uncommon. I cannot, in fact, recall photographing another like her.
I photographed Annie many times at the Tunbridge World's Fair, her favorite in all of Vermont. A natural teamster, she would often be standing with her charges watching the ring, awaiting her turn. She was born in Connecticut, but she was no flatlander; her image is quintessentially Vermont.
A few years ago, as staff photographer for the Cabot Creamery Cooperative, I visited Annie and Ray at their Berlin farm. Harvest Hill was the love of her love, and of course Ray was a big part of Harvest Hill. I spent two hours with them, in the barn and outside under a big tree. Annie visited with “the ladies,” sat telling stories with Ray, helped a great granddaughter pose with a rambunctious calf. In looking over my take from that visit I discovered two things which contributed to this woman's remarkable photogenic quality. First, she didn't care a fig about how she looked. Because of this, she never primped or posed but, rather, simply visited with another good friend, who happened in this case to be a photographer snapping pictures as she spoke. The resulting images were just as selfless, egoless, as photographs of Mother Theresa.
The second quality of Annie Burke that strikes me now as I look over all my images of her, is the uncanny way in which she draws your attention to the one she's with. She never thought of herself as she was being photographed. I can see it now, though I didn't know it at the time. It's Ray she's delighted by, it's her granddaughter she's so proud of, that Ayshire or Charolais she is doting over. Always magnified by the one she's with, Annie glows in every single frame.
I last photographed Annie Burke at the 2008 Dairy Luncheon of the Vermont Farm Show in Barre. Tim Calabro and I had set up a small photo booth into which we invited farmers to step for a portrait as they passed on their way to the buffet. The images were to be collectively used as “the face of farming in Vermont” for The Herald's farm show supplement the following year.
Annie Burke was the last to be photographed that day. True to form, she didn't disappoint. While all the others, about 50, simply walked in front of the lens and consented to being photographed, Annie made an event of her moment. Springing over to a neighboring table, she grabbed a bunch of balloons, and pulled them into the frame. Then, just as I started shooting, she deflected the attention, pointing to the simple “got milk?” message at her side. This is vintage Annie Burke, and it is the way I remember her; happily drawing our eye to the one she's with, and looking marvelous in the meantime.
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