Review by Micah McCoy •
While Odette England’s Dairy Character may first seem a pointed feminist critique of dairy farm culture, a deeper investigation of the text reveals the nuance necessary to adequately address the author’s complex relationship with her past. Odette was raised a farmer’s daughter on her parents’ Australian dairy farm. Her upbringing came with expectations that she would learn to cook and sew and prepare herself for a life as a farmer’s wife. Sometimes what is expected never occurs, and in this case England eschewed expectation, pursuing a life of independence as photographer, author, and educator. Eventually her parents lost the farm, but England, her daughter, and her parents revisited the land. These visits, in part, became the inspiration for this book.
Dairy Character brings together an eclectic grouping of archival photographs, new photographs made by England, and excerpts from a vintage cow manual. Placed in the center of the book are “short stories” by England, printed on a thinner, pink-hued paper. They consist mostly of recollections from the author’s childhood. The writing is beautiful and quite necessary in building the context to read the photographs that surround the text. The short vignettes, for the most part, address the mundane moments that encapsulate bits of life that add up to the whole of human experience.
The photos alone elucidate a harsh vision of farm life: cows are commodities that can be ogled and objectified, as seen in the crude excerpts from the cow manual. A not always subtle equivalency is constructed in reference to the photographs England includes of a young girl, her daughter, captured in stark black and white, emphasizing the child’s wonder at the farm, but also reminding us of the politics surrounding the female body. The parity ascribed to the two sets of photos could become heavy handed if England had less skillfully woven the sequence of images in with found family photographs that complicate the narrative and describe life on the farm with more gradations.
The power in England’s critique is materialized through the care with which she approaches the subject. The themes present in the photographs are expounded upon in her recollections from childhood. While it might seem easy for the book to become an admonishment of the culture in which she was raised, instead the whole of the book adds up to something much more powerful. While many of the photos included in the book are black and white, the overarching theme of the book is expounded in many shades of grays with a little pink for good measure.
England, and book designer Cara Buzzell drop in the occasional instance of pink throughout the book. Whatever the intent, the design choice conjures up certain imagery, both socio and agricultural. For one, the choice, for better or worse, brings about an internal reference to the culture which builds an individual’s destiny based on born anatomy. What seems like an odd choice at first, including pages adorned with pink paint cards from the hardware store, is brilliant reference to gender reveal culture, reminding us of rooms painted pink for young girls, and the all the loaded connotations that this entails.
While these allusions float beneath the surface of the photographs of England’s young daughter, the inclusion of pink pages so near photos of cows being milked and prodded creates a through line to the pink flesh of the livestock. The pink pages are certainly aesthetically pleasing and exist as a connective design choice. They do so much of the heavy lifting, making the subtle connections between the disparate source material.
The book is presented as a rough document, with the edges of the hardcover shell left raw revealing their cardboard innards. When England has spoken of the book’s design, she has relayed the intention to have created an object that wouldn’t seem out of place in an old farmhouse or barn. Certainly, the book—thick in depth, but small in stature—does feel somewhat akin the field manuals the photographer references with directly (through appropriation) and indirectly (though design). England provides readers with an engaging work that leverages the medium to maximum effect: taking advantage of the history of photo books, field manuals, archival photography, and contemporary imagery. With the addition of her beautiful writing, this work says so much without ever speaking loudly.
Micah McCoy; Photographer and Henry Nias Business in the Arts Fellow MoCP
Dairy Character, Odette England
Photographer: Odette England, born Murray Bridge, South Australia and currently resides in Providence, RI
Publisher: Saint Lucy Books, Baltimore, MD, USA, 2021.
Hardcover, 9 x 6.75 inches, 188 pages, printed by Oddi Sales in Bosnia and Herzegovina, ISBN 978-0-578-87587-3
Photobook Designer: Cara Buzzell
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