Farming and Photographing: Sarah Christianson’s ‘Homeplace’

After three years, Sarah Christianson has recently received a MFA from the University of Minnesota in photography. Throughout this time, she focused on a rather personal project: documenting her family’s farm. We caught up with Sarah in the gallery space where she was exhibiting her final project and she walked us through the show.

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After three years, Sarah Christianson has recently received a MFA from the University of Minnesota in photography. Throughout this time, she focused on a rather personal project: documenting her family’s farm. We caught up with Sarah in the gallery space where she was exhibiting her final project and she walked us through the show.

Photography Sarah Christianson
Christianson Farm, Cummings, ND, August 2007
Toned Gelatin Silver Print
This last remaining Christianson farmstead was originally rented and then purchased by my great-grandparents Henry and Claire Anderson.  It is where my Grandma Margaret and (much later) I grew up and where my parents still live and work.

Can you introduce us to your project and what you’ve been doing?

This body of work I call ‘Homeplace’ and I’ve been working on this for the past three years.  It’s a documentation of my family’s farm in eastern North Dakota. It has been in the family since 1884.  When I began graduate school I realized that the family farm would probably end with my parents. All my siblings and I had moved away to pursue other opportunities. And this realization really provided me with the impetus to start documenting this place that has been such a large part of our family and my personal identity.

Photography Sarah Christianson
Dale Christianson, Spring Planting, Section 36, May 2007
Toned Gelatin Silver Print
Pinto beans.  Not as grueling as it once was, Dad has air conditioning, talk radio, and sometimes Mom or I for company.  GPS navigation is another luxury, allowing for straighter rows and naps.  “I only have to wake up to turn,” Dad says.

And so, as the project evolved, it grew from straight documentation and mutated into something else. I pulled images from all our family archives as well as documents, journals, etc., to give a fuller context to the project and the place, that a single photograph couldn’t do.  The project looks at the farm through time, how it has changed and evolved and what that could mean for the future.
The materials from the family archive are a great entry point.  People have these sorts of images and documents in their own family collection, in their attic, in the basement.  The old handwriting, the old snapshots of people in front of barns – it’s something people can relate to.

Photography Sarah Christianson
The Barn:  1941, 1953, 2006
Archival Inkjet Prints

Looking around the exhibit, it is clear that you employed many different techniques while photographing.  Why did you chose this method, and can you speak the challenges of doing it?

It is quite challenging to get everything to feel cohesive with these different types of images and materials. The editing process was probably the most difficult. I really enjoy having a diversity of images, of techniques, of styles.  They describe our farm and its history in different ways and present a larger context.  I feel this adds great variety for the viewer and may engage the viewer in a different way, or pull different people into images rather than them all looking the same.
I really feel that the problem with contemporary photography is that so many people find themselves in a niche and to do the same thing over and over again – it reproduces itself.  So by having these different types of imagery I think it breathes fresh air into the project and into the dialogue of contemporary photography.

One of your many techniques included aerial shots. What is the story behind these images?

Photography Sarah Christianson
Traces, 2007
Toned Gelatin Silver Print

We have a large amount of aerial snap shots in our family archives that my grandfather had taken when he had a pilot’s license in the 1940s. So I really wanted to get up in the air to duplicate those sorts of images, as they provide a great overview and introduction to this place.  The man that sprays crops for my dad has a four-seater Cessna plane. I approached him and he was happy enough to bring me up and let me photograph for an hour free of charge.  It was really spectacular to be able to do that. He was really great in terms of asking me what height I needed, what angle, what direction I need to go, “Should we circle around again?” So I was able to photograph the three farmsteads that encompass the Christianson farm now.

On one wall, there is a grouping of six similarly sized images.  Why and how did you select these specific ones?

Photography Sarah Christianson
Equipment, Christianson Farm, January 2008
Toned Gelatin Silver Print

The ‘Marks of the Land’ is a sub-series within the overall project. These were the earliest types of photographs I was making in the project and it was what I responded to first in the landscape. I drew my inspiration from Wayne Gudmundson.  I’ve had many conversations with him and this is always a theme in his landscape work, so it infused itself into my image making.  In such a vast place as North Dakota, the traces of human habitation can get swallowed by the flatness of the landscape.  It feels natural to search out these marks of people’s presence.

The mark making also, for me, references a palimpsest, another structural thread that holds the project together. A palimpsest is an ancient document, or scroll, reused over and over again by scraping the text off and writing on top of this fresh surface.  This was before the invention of paper when vellum was used.  This was an expensive commodity and they needed to keep recording things. Even though they scraped off the previous layers, the new text would intermingle with bits from the previous layers.  This mixture of time and text infuses itself into my photographs as well with these types of mark making.

The exhibit has a few straightforward references to your family, such as your Dad’s John Deere collection. Why did you choose to represent this side of your family?

Photography Sarah Christianson
Dale Christianson’s John Deere Collection #1 & #2
Toned Gelatin Silver Prints
An ongoing tradition, Dad receives a new toy tractor every year for his birthday.

First of all, my dad gets one toy tractor every year for his birthday – it’s a family tradition. Farming is also a family tradition, so the images reference how much agriculture is infused into our family identity. Having these sorts of humorous images, along with the snapshots of birthday cakes decorated with tractors, helps to balance the serious tone of the rest of the project, to make it a little more light-hearted at times.  These are real people, real lives; it’s not always that serious.

What are you future hopes for this project and exhibit?

Photography Sarah Christianson
Soybean Harvest (Section 36) #1, October 2008
Archival Inkjet Print

I want to get the project out there, into the greater world for others to enjoy.  I would love to find more exhibition venues for the work, to have someone commercially publish the self-published book I made of the project.  These have been pretty hard to do right now since I’ve been a full time graduate student.  But through organizations like the Society for Photographic Education, I’ve been able to meet other photographers and get ideas and contacts from them.  I also trade prints with them.  Every bit of exposure helps.  My research for this project has led me to the Library of Congress in Washington DC to examine the archives of photographer John Vachon.  He’s a very overlooked figure in photo history.  He began photographing in North Dakota as a member of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) documentary project in the 1930s-1940s.  He fell in love with the state and continually returned over his lifetime to create new bodies of photographs.  Through this research, I met Beverly Brannon, the photo curator there, and she is interested in acquiring a copy of my book for their permanent collection. And so things are starting to happen, but it requires more hard work, more persistence, more looking for places to exhibit and things like that.

Would you define your work as ‘photojournalism’?

Photography Sarah Christianson
Rain (Section 23)
Toned Gelatin Silver Print

It is definitely based on the narrative experience, but it’s not necessarily journalism, photo-reportage, or even strictly art photography.  I find that separating photography into these different categories is narrow-minded.  Photography is a very broad medium, and  I draw inspiration from all its facets.

How would you explain your experience in the Masters of Photography program at the University of Minnesota?

In the Master’s program, we are accepted into specific disciplines—painting, drawing, ceramics, etc.  I applied to photography because that’s what I do.  Other students in the photo area don’t necessarily use photography all the time but maybe only for part of their work. They are much more multimedia, cross-disciplinary artists.  While both are valid forms of making art, it’s been quite odd to be in a photography program where I am one of the few still making an actual photographic image. It really testifies to the state of contemporary art right now.  Everyone is exploring cross-disciplinary aspects, new media, but I think we are really losing touch with the foundations of image making as a result.  And that is what I’m concerned with.  I really draw inspiration from the history of photography and inject that into my work, using these long-standing traditions that people are overlooking now, like black and white photography.

How do you photographically approach other subjects?

Photography Sarah Christianson
Dale & Rose Christianson, 4th Generation Farmers, 2008
Toned Gelatin Silver Print

Other subjects that interest me are primarily driven by my research and history. I am motivated, of course, by my family and my heritage. I’ve done projects that trace my family lineage back to Norway. Now that I’m moving to California I hope to research more of California’s history and find an angle that interests me, some way to tell a story through research and images.

On the subject of California, are you planning to purely pursue artistic desires, or will you be getting a ‘real’ job?

It’s up in the air right now.  I would love to keep pursing my own work and projects, but the reality is I need a job or to unexpectedly win the lottery. I need money in order to make my photographs. So therefore I’ll have to succumb to the real world pressures and find that job.  But hopefully I’ll be able to strike a balance: find a way to do both.  In the beginning, my job might have to support my art. And eventually, I hope to be able to do my art full time.