Odette England

With her exhibition Dairy Character in its final weeks at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Odette England speaks with Erin McFadyen about the project's unique mode(s) of autobiography. Incisive and tender, the body of work looks back at England's girlhood in a regional farming community, with an affection somehow unbound from nostalgia.

Dairy Character has been described in various statements as a “reflection” or “chronicle” of your experience growing up in a rural farming community in South Australia. There are archival photographs used in the project, but also new images. I’m really interested in this autobiographical mode of photography which happens at a temporal removal – the new images are, in the most literal, indexical, way, “of” the present, but refer to the past. How have you negotiated these different temporal layers in your thinking about the project? 

The genesis of Dairy Character is where those temporal layers you refer to started to fuse. The project began in March of 2020, but the photographs I’d been making intermittently since 2010. I had a selection of about ninety small prints on one wall of my studio . . . a mix of images I’d created, photos I’d directed my parents to make; there were family snapshots, there were some found images, and every day that I was in my studio, I’d sit in front of this wall and look and think and engage in different registers of observation. And when I had studio visits, I’d talk about the remote dairy farming community in which I was raised and how my obsession with re-performing autobiography forms a significant part of my artistic practice.

But I knew there was a hole in what was on the wall; I knew it was a me-shaped hole and that the dirt to fill it would only come when I was ready to be more vulnerable, but also more critical of this place I love. And so, in the Australian summer of 2019, I was visiting my parents, and as soon as they left the house, I started going through their cupboards and drawers, looking for something special. I’m very nosy and cheeky! And it was rummaging around in their under-stair cupboard that I found my dad’s old cow manual; it’s called a conformation assessment manual, it’s given to all registered dairy farmers, and its primary goal is to help the farmer rank, rate, and assess the physical strengths and weaknesses of their female dairy cows. And the way it does this is by focussing on the production (of milk) and reproduction (of calves).

These manuals are typically written by men, the photographs in it are taken by men, and flicking through the pages, I noticed how sexist, demeaning, and derogatory the language is; how crass, unflattering, and invasive the photographs are; and that this production/reproduction relationship also relates to photography. And in those fifteen minutes of sneaking around and finding this book, which I write about in Dairy Character, I realized that my snoopiness and curiosity allowed me to find the shovel and the dirt to fill that hole.

I love Dairy Character’s consideration of reproductive labour as an interspecies phenomenon. Do you think there is anything reparative that can come out of the relationship between girls and women in a farming context and the animals they live and work with? 

In working on Dairy Character, I read a lot about women and farming, books like Preserving the Family Farm and With These Hands, and I found myself wanting to point out that even now, rural females don’t share fully in the occupational inheritance of agriculture; they’re frequently excluded or marginalised from essential resources, and this exclusion is the result of ongoing social processes of patriarchal culture. The social construction of agriculture is reinforced by certain types of myth-making, which work to disadvantage farm girls and women. And so, I wanted to create a new kind of record that I hadn’t seen or read before in a photobook that made palpable the emotional quotient of growing up as a girl when the loudest, strongest voices didn’t sound like mine.

The other thing to highlight is that things are placed onto our bodies by other people, by history, by ancestry, and I kept thinking: What was placed onto my body that informed the backstory to Dairy Character? How are female bodies similar to implements that men try to manipulate? So much of the book is an acknowledgment of my inability to find the kind of femaleness I so desperately wanted in a place I love to this day; but that my understanding of femaleness was colored by what men told me it was, and so many of the images in the book are tinted, metaphorically, with this complication. 

The land feels like another character in these images to me: there are highly cultivated fields seen from above, landscapes with piping laid across them, bales of hay which rise up like breasts or bellies. It’s different to other projects, like Your distance makes me close to you, for example, where you’re also looking an empty interior space. How did you approach or think about the landscape when preparing this series?

Much of farm life is about gesture and nonverbal communication; it’s about the simplicity and economy of words; there’s a distinct lack of adjectives; you don’t over-explain anything because there’s no need. Instead, there’s an emphasis on what’s concrete, practical, and down-to-earth. And so linguistically, both in making work and choosing which images to include in Dairy Character, and even in my writing, I thought a lot about the dialect of dairy farming, the way female cows are described in these confirmation assessment manuals, about what kinds of images I needed to repeat, or what features within images needed to recur.

That’s where the land comes in as a critical character because many photographs speak to dust, dryness, looking down – or looking up. As a farmer, two things always on your mind are the weather and the soil, and as a kid, I don’t recall having a horizontal landscape view of the world; I didn’t look straight ahead, it was always up or down, and so that became a repetitive visual theme in the book. There are lots of suns and burning holes, like when you stare at the sun, and you get those little spots before your eyes, and things become blurry – and so blur, and grain were important too, where you almost start to blink because you’re thinking, am I seeing parts of girls that look like cows or vice versa? 

Life at the farm was always about repair and tactile values, so some images are forlorn or broken in some way; they look haphazard or disheveled, like the land itself. I thought a lot about how to use the camera to describe the tactility of place. 

There are many different photographic technologies at play in the project. Why was this way of working with different technologies important to you?

Most of the archival materials in Dairy Character come from family albums or my dad’s cow manual; a couple of photographs are found images. Mostly, it was much rearranging and seesawing to select which ones were included. In this case, I worked closely with the designer Cara Buzzell, who’s not just a graphic designer; she’s one of the most trusted interrogators of my work.

Once I knew it was going to be a book, I started by revisiting all the work I’d made about the farm over the past decade alongside snapshots taken of me as a child, while keeping front-of-mind the fact that the female calf was heralded on the farm, yet the female child was secondary. I thought too about how I was dressed and presented at the farm; boys were gold, and girls were decorative . . . and then I started filling in the gaps.

I wanted an image of Dad’s truck, for example, because it’s an essential character; I knew I wanted a picture of our driveway . . . so some were “knowns,” others came serendipitously, like the image of the dead owl. But every image had to be relevant, hold its own, and refer backward or forward to other pictures in the book. I made little prints of all the contenders and then shuffled them like a deck of cards, paying attention to which ones lingered longest.

Some of the best editing advice I received was from the photographer Stephen Gill, who said: go with images that have strong emotional content; don’t overlook pictures that aggravate; try not to ponder or analyse your choices too early, but eliminate any photograph you have to justify; and don’t stop until you remove all doubt. And Cara’s approach is always, “Let’s stick two pictures together that we’d never usually do and see what happens.” I like that because there are exciting surprises to be had by making pairings or groupings that seem intentionally out-of-sync, or that avoid aesthetic rightness. Actually, that helps me to “un-know” my images a bit more.

The Dairy Character book also includes autobiographical short stories. Can you tell us a little about these stories, and how they interact with the photographs? 

This makes Dairy Character unique, because although it’s autobiographical, there isn’t a single picture of me in it. The way I appear is, of course, as the artist, but mainly as a writer. There are eighteen short stories in the book, each about three hundred words; the bulk of them sit at the centre of the book, so it’s like this exposing the core of something or getting to the heart of something . . . you’re looking inside. And in many of those stories, I describe photographs that are not in the book. Early on, I felt that some of what I wanted to say about farming and gender was better suited to images, while other parts needed text. My writing in the book slips between first and third person. Sometimes I write as Mum or Dad without indicating that that’s what I’m doing; sometimes I write as my younger brother, and sometimes I include actual emails from my parents, it’s visceral and immediate, improvisational, scatty writing. And I suppose the images are like that too because I kept asking myself, “How do I become a conduit for talking about rural females through re-contextualising images that are not polished and camera-ready?” How can my past be a kind of outlet for the experiences of other rural females? Our life there wasn’t glossy or neat; it was gritty and authentic, but that authenticity was tuned into a gendered channel with a one-way receiver. 

I wanted to inscribe both a love of place and criticism of place into the images and the sequencing of the book, and the stories I wrote. The word “inscribe” is like a cut that creates a scar. Some scars are visible; some are not. My book is filled with both types.

Finally, can you tell us a little about what you’re doing or working on, now?  

I’m working on several projects concurrently. One is a new photo book, Woman Wearing Ring Shields Face from Flash, which investigates relationships between handguns, cameras, human hands, and gendered violence. It will be published later this year in conjunction with the first solo exhibition of the work in the United States. I’ve also just finished a second book project, Isn’t X Beautiful, is a ten-chapter 35,000-word non-fiction novella that blends autobiography, history, and philosophy to reveal symbolic and cultural meanings and associations between the history of photography and the letter X. It is told through recollections and semi-scholarly meanderings of a Generation X photographer raised on a dairy farm. I’ve also been working on a long-term photography project that reconsiders the life of the American photographer Marion Post Wolcott, who worked for the US Farm Security Administration in the late 1930s. And right now, I’m an artist resident at PhotoAccess in Canberra, working on a new “something” that is still taking shape.

Dairy Character
January 27 – 9 April 2023
Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne

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