JTF (just the facts): Published in 2013 by Post Editions (here). Hardcover, 144 pages, with 91 color photographs and 95 black and white thumbnails (with accompanying captions). Includes a short artist statement on the jacket flap. (Spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Food production is one of those touchy subjects that we all seem to have a strong opinion about, even though we are largely uninformed about its realities and details. With cues from the farm to table and slow food movements and lessons from Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma rattling around in our brains, we know we want good healthy food (“organic “or not), grown not too far from where we live, raised in conditions that wouldn’t make us think twice or pull back in horror. We also want food that is relatively inexpensive, abundant, and undeniably safe. And increasingly, we are demanding evidence of supporting production processes that aren’t unnecessarily harmful to the animals or the environment. So the obvious challenge for modern farmers is that with consumers off in a blissful fog of happy cows in sunshine filled meadows, they need to come to grips with a set of conditions that are often contradictory, or at least in general opposition, while still finding a way to make a living.
Henk Wildschut’s photographs of Dutch food production sites bring this challenge into crisp clinical focus. Diving into technical details and industrial methods with the attention of a forensic scientist, his pictures sweep aside romanticism and dig deep into the cutting edge technologies being deployed in today’s most innovative farms. Depending on your perspective, given that his findings are so far from our 19th century ideals, your reaction will be somewhere between impressed with our collective ingenuity or astonished and a bit frightened by our increasingly technical optimizations. His point is that food production is far more nuanced and complicated than we generally understand, and even when we do the homework and get better educated, the answers aren’t easy – they require trade-offs that reasonable people will still disagree about, regardless of whether we’re talking about tomatoes and lettuce, milk and yogurt, potatoes and freshwater fish, or pork and beef.
His book is divided into six ominous sounding sections: Source, Protocol, System, Location, Product, and Hygiene, with each one supported by a selection of representative images from various different farms. One of the things that becomes immediately clear is that if we want inexpensive food, it needs to be farmed at larger scale, and with larger scale comes the need for standardization and regulation, as well as more systematic efforts at nearly every step in the chain to prevent infections, diseases, and other problems. Like Thomas Struth’s images of sites of technology, Wildschut’s photographs take on a eerie futuristic quality, as professionals in bunny suits normally found in a semiconductor clean room worry over special purpose computerized machinery designed to improve, automate, and track everything from vaccinations to packaging.
Wildschut’s photographs are framed and titled with deadpan accuracy, bringing unemotional scientific rigor to his subjects. Each image is a tiny object lesson in highly controlled process detail: petri dishes of infected leaves, highly accurate measuring systems, fluorescent lit industrial washing stations, custom built conveyor belts, and data centers filled with racks of servers. His monotone descriptive titles take on an ironic edge when closed door reality and our imagined fantasy don’t entirely align: Playground captures piglets in repeated rectangular pens with plastic flooring while River shows us rows of circular breeding tanks for farm raised fish. But it’s these inversions that really provoke new realizations about the state of modern farming. Lavatory shows an ingenious indoor fencing system that manages pig waste effectively, while Semi-finished shows a conveyor belt of brown and white chicks, color coded for easy separation between male and female. Innovative thinking is being applied at every stage, and a pervasive paranoia around cleanliness and order is found almost everywhere.
Photographically, Wildschut’s pictures alternate between squared off wider views of technology rich scenes (greenhouses, machinery, technical facilities) and closer in still lifes of isolated equipment, animals, and workers. His eye is often attracted by the puzzling or incomprehensible – odd looking machines with unfathomable (but later found to be important) functions, regimented racks of carcasses, perfect greenhouses that seemingly stretch to the horizon, and workers in hairnets and shower caps keeping the massive operations running. The photographs are just as controlled as the environments being depicted, obsessively crisp and clear, and yet still mysterious. Every visual puzzle is later unraveled in the captions to thumbnail images in the back of the book, educating us after we have taken the ride to wary incomprehension and back.
What makes this book work so successfully is its unwavering balance; it is neither a celebration nor an indictment of today’s farming, but simultaneously both – each photograph has the potential to look amazingly brilliant or delusionally crazy, depending on your vantage point. That open endedness ensures that the pictures provoke discussion, rather than stifling it with a one sided visual argument. It’s the kind of book that will likely kindle arguments, so casually leave it on your coffee table and wait for the sparks to fly.
Collector’s POV: Henk Wildschut just had a show of this body of work at Kominek Gallery in Berlin (here). His work has not yet reached the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best/only option for those collectors interested in following up.