“That’s Justin — he does our plowing,” said one visitor to Highland Center for the Arts last weekend, pointing to a photograph of young Justin Foster, perhaps 10 years old, standing bare-chested in the barn, pausing with both hands on a shovel — a photograph taken a few decades ago.
In a short text with the photograph, Justin reflects on the hard work and work ethic of his parents at their farm and sawmill in Walden, an operation involving 17 family members.
Nearby, other visitors remark on the joy in Lillian Marcotte’s photo as she sees the first red-winged blackbird of the season through the window of her Hartland home. Others hear audio of Josephine Young of Craftsbury recalling her horse Streeter, back when she was a midwife in the early 20th century — the recording accompanying a photograph of Young holding her grandson’s hand in 1973.
“Driving the Back Roads: In Search of Old Time Vermonters,” an exhibition of photographs and stories by Ethan Hubbard, opened at the Gallery at Highland Center for the Arts in Greensboro in September and continues to Dec. 2. The show features over 50 large-format black-and-white photographs of Vermonters from the central and northern part of the state taken by Hubbard over nearly 50 years, from the late 1960s to 2010.
Brief stories in the subjects’ own words and as told by Hubbard accompany the photographs. Several are also accompanied by recordings of their conversations with Hubbard.
“Driving the Back Roads of Vermont” was developed last year by Hubbard with the Vermont Folklife Center, drawn from some 600 rolls of film spanning five decades and with audio excerpts from over 100 of Hubbard’s recordings. It was presented at the Folklife Center in 2017.
Humanity and dignity pervade in “Driving the Back Roads of Vermont.” These Vermonters, mostly older folks, exude character. Hubbard’s subjects are content in their own skin — hugging a big barn cat, sharpening a scythe, grinning with an old friend. They are folks that some visitors to the gallery know or remember, and that other visitors wish that they did.
“These are people who passed on old-fashioned values to us newcomers,” explained Hubbard, who has made a lifetime of meeting, photographing, listening to, and recording rural people, a dedication inspired in his early years in Vermont.
Hubbard moved to central Vermont in the 1960s. Early on, in Waitsfield, he taught elementary school. In short order, he was captivated.
“I met Harry Smith, and he was pulling an infected tooth out with a hammer because he didn’t want to spend the money,” Hubbard recalls. “He told stories about logging on Palmer Hill in the 1930s; he went trading in Waitsfield carrying his gunnysack. I had an epiphany. People here held this 250-year tradition and I fell in love with them.”
A photograph of Smith in 1967 and Hubbard’s memory of an evening with him is in the show.
In 1968, Hubbard became deputy director of the Vermont Historical Society. In his VW bug, Nikon camera and tape recorder in hand, he drove back roads, meeting Vermonters, photographing them, and hearing their stories. Hubbard’s profound interest in and respect for people is evident in their ease in their photographs and the stories they share.
Anne Burke of Harvest Hill Farm in Berlin, grinning with one of her calves, acknowledged a lifetime of industriousness — “Cattle, calves, pumpkins, Norwegian Elkhounds, Christmas wreathes, maple syrup, fresh eggs, baled hay, fence posts … you name it, and we did it. I could take a nuthin’ and make it a somethin’.”
Ginny Foster was near the end of her life on one of Hubbard’s visits. He photographed her lying down, still wearing her apron and a smile, stacks of books behind her.
“I’ve got all my work done, the 17 children are all raised up and they’re good for the most part,” she told him. “I’ve succeeded. You asked me why I always wear this apron. I’ll tell you. It’s my uniform for having done a lifetime of caring for those I was responsible for,” Foster said.
Long after his tenure at the Historical Society, Hubbard kept meeting and recording Vermonters. He also traveled extensively, photographing and interviewing rural and indigenous people around the world including in the Himalayas, Outer Hebrides, and Andes. He has authored over a dozen books — “Salt Pork & Apple Pie” of Vermonters, and “Faces of Wisdom: Elders of the World,” among them.
“People ask me how many countries I’ve been to — it’s about 60,” Hubbard said. “They ask me my favorite and I always answer central Vermont.” Hubbard lives in Washington, at his Udder Joy Farm.
“Ethan captures people in their lives. He captures the hard work. He captures their character and humor, and in some, their suffering. Ethan has an incredible ability to be present and to listen and ask questions without appearing as an outsider,” said Maureen O’Connor Burgess, curator at Highland Center for the Arts.