A Vanishing View—John Brown’s Vermont
In the spring of 1987, I chanced upon an extraordinary event at Whitcomb High School in Bethel.
The entire gym floor was covered with animal pelts. Large round stacks of beaver, some of the stiff hides over three feet in diameter, strings of red fox skins and tails, fisher cat, martin, weasel, mink, squirrel, rabbit; hundreds upon hundreds of fresh furs were being scrutinized and purchased by large, loud, barrel-chested buyers from Montreal and New York.
Though I’m the son of a 7th generation Vermonter, I was born and raised in Massachusetts, and I have never been more acutely aware of my “flat-lander” status than on that day among the local sellers and foreign buyers of a trapping culture.
Across the large hall, John Brown of East Randolph was the only person I recognized. He’d brought furs to sell, and I latched onto him like a poor soul down a well reaching for a rope. For the next hour or so, he guided me around the event, introducing me to other trappers and their livelihood.
A Vanishing View
I’m indebted to John Brown for his hospitality that day. He became for me a strong connection to a Vermont vanishing from view. It wouldn’t be the last time he would prove such a link.
As a photographer, I really enjoy going out without a specific goal in mind, to simply “ride the roads” in search of an image.
This “photojournalistic prospecting” is also perhaps a vanishing art, for few newspapers today provide photographers the time to go out into their readership area to simply “see what they can see.” Often the schedule is completely filled by coverage of specific events.
While important, these images fail to include so much of our world! I’ve never received a call that the sun was reflecting in a particularly beautiful way off the White River in Sharon, or that the blue shadows in the snow drifts across Bobby Simpson’s fields were worthy of imaging! Some moments simply won’t be captured unless you are out there, open to that which will surprise, delight, even astonish the eye.
A Classic Scene
Traveling south through East Randolph one morning in the late 1980’s I had such a moment. There, peddling on the side of Route 14 was John Brown. It was a classic scene; John, riding atop a three-wheeled adult bike was decked out in a button down shirt, jeans, cap and suspenders.
Completing the image, and making it truly memorable, was the rifle cradled in a rack directly behind John as he pedaled along.
Not waiting a split second, I turned my car around, and raced back by John to the north, waving to him as I passed. Parking about a hundred yards ahead, I jumped out and trained my Nikon F with a 180mm telephoto lens upon him as he approached.
This photograph resulted from that encounter. Shot with a moderately shallow depth of field, it places John in focus on the boundary between the unfocused areas before and behind. There is nothing “clever” or nuanced about the placement of the subject in this scene; John rides “straight up” in the middle of the image. The road, with its undulating white boundary lines frames him, while the strong dark verticals of telephone poles, suspenders, and bike tires, emphasize the subject’s “uprightness.”
Study in Contrast
The image is a study in contrast. On the one hand we have a fellow who would be at home pictured on the front stoop of any Vermont country store, at Town Meeting, or outside the judging arena at the Tunbridge Fair. Placed upon a large tricycle, he presents a somewhat whimsical side, however. Is he out for exercise; running an errand? The bike gets our attention.
So does the rifle.
On the one hand we have an adult out and about on a vehicle associated with child’s play; on the other, he’s riding through East Randolph like Marshall Dillon in Dodge City!
The tension between these aspects of the scene is echoed by the bike tire “breaking the boundary” of the painted white line on the roadside.
The beauty of this photograph, then, lies in the questions it raises. Many today long for a simpler time; this image evokes that, but also provokes us to wonder about where we are headed.
On that June day when I found John Brown in East Randolph, he was headed to the post office to pick up his mail. A neighbor, having difficulties with a pesky woodchuck, had asked John to “dispatch” the critter if he happened to see it in her garden. This, being a good neighbor and a particularly good shot, John Brown was prepared to do.
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