Odette England Dairy Character Interview

Holiday Gift Idea from Light Work! Signed copies of Odette England’s Dairy Character are available for purchase in our shop! Orders must be completed by December 15, 2021 at 11:00 a.m. EST to ensure your gift arrives in time for the holidays. Purchases made after the deadline will be shipped after January 4, 2022.

In her latest book, Dairy Character, photographer Odette England delivers personal insight into the life of a woman growing up on a dairy farm in rural Australia.Expressing the importance of shining a light on girls and women in rural areas, England draws a staggering comparison of the objectification of women and dairy cows. (Russell, Grace, Musee Magazine, September, 16, 2021)

The images are reproduced in delicate tones; England also interlaces blush-coloured papers in the book. But the content is uncomfortable, centring on extreme close-ups which suggest a reductive way of seeing both cows and women. It is a subversive look at the literal and visual language of farming.
(Smyth, Diane, British Journal of Photography, April 16, 2021)

Sydney Ellison (SE): — I just wanted to say that I loved the book and I was so excited to get a little sneak peek at it when I was at Light Work. So first, I wanted to know if you could share a little bit about the manual that you found that inspired the project and what it was and how you reacted to finding it?

Odette England (OE): Sure. So I was visiting my parents. They now live in the town where I was born and I was going through when they leave the house. I turn into a little kid and I start rummaging around in cupboards and looking for secrets and photographic inspiration and things to enjoy looking at and reading. And in this cupboard in a box, I found my dad’s old cow manual and every registered dairy farmer receives a copy of this manual. It’s not exclusive to Australia. Lots of countries have these cow manuals and the idea is that they’re given to the farmer as a way to help the farmer rank and assess the physical strengths and weaknesses of their dairy cows. So they do that by focusing on two things: they focus on the production of milk and the breeding production of calves and they call it “dairy character.”

When I think of someone’s character, I think about writing a character reference. I think about someone’s morals and values and what kind of person they are. But for a cow, when they talk about dairy character, it’s entirely about quality and quantity. It’s the quality of the milk they produce and the calves they produce and the quantity, how much milk and how many good calves. This book is very plain. It’s black and white. It’s written exclusively by men. It’s half text, half images. The photographs are very low quality, but they’re extreme closeups of the bodies of cows. So you see utters, teats, legs, vaginas, bottoms, anything that speaks to a cow’s ability to make a lot of milk and produce a lot of calves.

But they’re very grotesque images because they’re so visually, physically violent and they’re almost too descriptive. It was a very quick look that I had through this manual. I remember my father having it. He kept it in the second drawer of his filing cabinet, which was always locked. And I remember seeing it from time to time as a kid. So coming across it and looking through it,  I felt like I’d found something wonderful and terrifying and curious and problematic, but I’d also found this foundational piece for work that I’d been making for five years. I had all these little prints over my studio wall in New York City and I couldn’t call it a project. I couldn’t call it a series. I couldn’t call it anything other than images that I’d been making or images that I’d been asking my parents to make on my behalf. And when I found this manual, suddenly I had the foundation and the framework and the bodily object of a book, a structure that made sense of all of these pictures that I’d been making for the longest of times.

SE: That’s amazing! Like the idea that sometimes you just have to wait, and then the practice is contextualized. I’m really interested in the way that this project brings up criticism in the ways that visual and textual language can reflect each other and influence each other. As well as the way that both of those things shape our perceptions of everything around us. And I’m familiar with this type of criticism in photography, which reinforces how photography can be exploitive.  So I thought it was interesting that you brought in the ways that this happens with farming and specifically with female cows. So I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about how you think both verbal and visual language influence our attitudes towards people, places, and ideas and how you think they maybe overlap or how you think they differ?

OE: Okay. So I’ll start by talking about just within the book itself. There’s a mix of images. There are images that I’ve made. There are images that my parents have made under my direction or instruction from the cow book that they lifted directly from that. So they’re archival pictures, and then there are family snapshots and then there’s writing from myself, maybe 18 or 19 short stories, each about 300 words, that sit right in the middle of the book. There are photographs that illustrate those stories, but they’re not included in the book. So I felt from early on, there were ways in which I had to tell this story through different kinds of photographs and through different forms of language. And some of that language needed to be storytelling, specifically autobiographical storytelling because the images didn’t support the story or illuminate the story in the way that words could.

And then there were images that I felt had to be included because the story around or behind them was ineffectual. So I feel like photography is great at showing things, but also terrific at excluding things because it’s always a crop and it’s always a subjective decision. But words are like that very much too. But possibly going back to, if I’m understanding the question correctly, is so much about growing up in a male-dominant community and particularly a rural farming community is it’s a life about gesture and it’s a life about nonverbal communication and it’s a life about communicating with your body. It’s about the simplicity and the economy of words. Farmers don’t use adjectives, right? They don’t over-explain anything because they don’t need to. And it’s similar to the way that I understood and grew up making pictures, that they were economical, functional, clinical.

They were not meant to be voluminous. And they weren’t meant to suggest other things outside of themselves. And so even in my writing, in the book, I’m very, very direct. And there’s not a lot of fluffiness around the words. And so I’ve tried to do the same thing when I was making the pictures as well. Even in choosing the photographs that went into the book, I very specifically chose images that have a kind of tactile value to them. They look and feel like what it was to grow up in that environment. They look dirty, they feel rusted, there’s bent corners. I’m pointing to physicality, not just in the subject matter, but in the actual objecthood of the image itself. So that idea of tactile values was super important. You know, they had to look a bit haphazard. They had to look a bit disheveled. They had to look like how a female body was regarded and considered and treated within this community, that it was a body of labor. It was a body of secondaryness. I’m not sure that’s a word, but they were secondary to the men. And often behind cows as being these heralded beasts, these heralded bodies. 

SE: For a good amount of my life. I grew up in a very rural area. Neither of my parents went to college. So art school is a very different environment. And I’m wondering how you navigate bringing up this topic that is specifically contextualized in working class and rural experience to an audience that most likely doesn’t have the same complex understandings of your community and how you show that it goes beyond just being about “these people” or this community’s prejudices.

OE: I think some of that comes around to how women in contemporary society are still secondary bodies in many situations. And the way that I often come at my photographic practice is to speak autobiographically, but it’s always with a kind of awareness of things that I still experience now because rural life in Southern Australia, in this tiny community in the 1970s through the 1990s, is so removed from me now, let alone anyone else, that I had to find a bridge. And a part of that bridge came through photographing my daughter and looking at the way that she’s now 11 years old, but I’ve been photographing her for this project not knowing it was a project, not knowing that I was photographing her for this since she was five. There are kinds of behaviors. There are kinds of ways in which the female body is looked at, judged, picked apart, assessed, considered both by humans, looking at bodies, but by photography, looking at a female or female-identified body, and those ways still persist, although the ways in which we society do that has changed and has moved.

And I don’t want to say move forward because that implies a positive direction. I’m just saying it’s moved, but there are still the same issues that I think women or female-identifying bodies and faces experience. And that became something that was important for me to include in this book. It couldn’t just be about a rural community. It couldn’t just be about farmers beating their chests and saying, “We are dominant. We are the gods and there are the animals.” And then there are the women. It had to speak to the kinds of labor that women still perform, for the most part, without being paid for, let alone recognized for it. Diane Smyth at the British Journal of Photography sent me a wonderful article from the New York Times, which spoke to the idea of the pandemic’s influence on females and female-identified persons and how their lives had changed almost backward from having to perform a kind of role of woman or perform a kind of female identity that was expected, anticipated required of them. That wasn’t something I was thinking about when I was putting together this book, how the pandemic was cause this.

SE: So you talked a little bit about why it was important to include your daughter in the work and I’m wondering if you could talk about your choice to include your parents in the work and the process of making, rather than just the subject matter, such as why that was important, and what their response has been to the project.

OE: I started asking my parents to re-perform my past in around 2010. I was here in the US in grad school, and I wanted to nurse myself back to health, or nurse back to health this place that we loved and lost, this dairy farm, in 1989 owing to near-bankruptcy. And my way of doing that, because I couldn’t travel back, was to have them go back to a place that was their career, their labor, their great love, and have them re-walk this land over and again, every month for an entire year. And I would direct them where to make photographs. I would ask them to go back to the family album and find pictures of my younger brother and I, and to remake those pictures. All the while I’m sending them back to a place of pain, a place they couldn’t sustain that couldn’t sustain them.

It’s a perversely psychologically damaging request, but it is a request that a parent would understand. If my daughter was asking me to do the same thing I’d say, yeah, no hesitation. And then also about what it means to have some kind of parental custodianship over decision-making to help your child, to help a family member. So I didn’t feel like I could talk about this place. I mean, I never owned, my parents never owned, this place. The bank-owned our home, this place that they started off sharecropping, I couldn’t talk about it without including their voice. I couldn’t talk about it without including the years that they spent trying to make a life, trying to make a living from soil, from things outside of their control. Because a farmer’s life is almost entirely governed by things like the weather, which we have no control over.

And I was trying to control it through photography, which we assume we have some kind of control over. But actually the reverse, I think, is true, that we can’t control it no matter how much we think we’re in control of a device in front of our eyes. So I felt like their voice was really important to that and that some of the pictures in the book that they had made that I couldn’t make. Sometimes I write as me. Sometimes I write as my father, sometimes I write as my mother. So there’s this slippery use of language and storytelling where, you don’t know whose voice it is, but they sort of overlap a great deal, as do the photographs too. There’s this overlapping of past and present and growing up, all happening at once. So it was this very layered way of looking at story.

My daughter was a participant in this. You know, it’s a very collaborative process. There were pictures I made of her that she insisted I didn’t use. There are pictures that I made that she felt had to be in the book, her understanding of it. If she was uncertain or uncomfortable about anything, I didn’t include it. You know, she’s not a muse, she’s not a model, she’s her own person. And so it felt really important to include her in that process, but also to make her monumental. Like I spend a lot of time photographing from a really low angle. I wanted the female body to stop being this thing that was bent over and hunched over for labor where the faces isn’t seen, although there are images where I’ve cropped the body off, like the cow manual crops bodies off. But I also wanted to herald her like that Alexander Rodchenko series, Young Pioneers, where you are looking up at the majesty and wonder and joy of someone being thought of as magnificent and not just being a body, but being something that feels and emotes and has energy and passion, and fear.

 And so, a lot of the photographs of Hepburn—that’s my daughter’s name in the book—speak to that. She’s like a sunflower, kind of, looking for the sun.

SE: My last question is just that, besides having grown up in different circumstances, what ways do you think your daughter might experience the issues of this work differently than you? Or I guess, even speaking to growing up in different circumstances, if you have ideas as to how she relates to it differently?

OE: That’s a good question. And a good question for her. When I go back to the farm, which I try to do every year—though since the pandemic started, I have not—she comes with me and it’s usually my mum and my daughter and I who go back. We have this ritualistic behavior that has become apparent over the last five, six years since Hepurn was five years old. We go back to the farm. We have to ask permission from the owners to walk the land. It’s been through, I think, nine or ten owners, at least since 1989. And in the past six years, it’s been at least two different owners. So there’s this ritual of having to ask permission to even go there. Hepburn goes there with a child-like, inquisitive joy of experiencing farm life through a few hours of visiting.

And she thinks it’s the most magical place on earth, right? Because what she sees is what I saw—there’s soil and there’s trees to climb, and there’s hay bales to make cubbies out of. And there are still animals there. There are animals to pet and fences to climb over. And, you know, a stick becomes a sword or a wand. Everything is steeped in fantasy and magic because it’s not like an everyday life. For me, you know, I had a 200-acre playground. So for me being outdoors was not only this wondrous place of play, but it was also a place of imagination. It was a place of education. How I learned color, you know, yellow wasn’t yellow, yellow was canola or alfalfa or canary or egg yolk. The way that I learned things was through these 200 acres. For her, it’s so much fun.

And because she loves to pretend, she would do these things. She would pretend to be a cow and be walking on all fours through where the old dairy was. And I would just photograph it for fun, not thinking it would be part of this, but it was interesting to watch her behave as I had once, absolutely benignly and innocently about the wonder of place, which is how I was. But when I look retrospectively at the photographic evidence, at the oral storytelling, the difference between the oral histories that my father would tell versus my mother would tell, the kinds of rules and restrictions my mother had, and the role that she had to enact in that community versus the freedom that my father had. It’s only upon becoming an adult and a parent myself that I can look back at those things with a loving eye, but also a much more critical eye.

So for Hepburn, it’s still this magical, wonderful place. And she looks at these images from the cow manual and says, “Wow, they’re strange!” Or she’s aware to some extent of what she’s interpreting what she’s seeing, but certainly probably not in the way that I’m experiencing it or revisiting it because that was my life. And her life is a city life. And one where she lusts after something that seems so wonderful. If I told her we were moving back there tomorrow, she would be immersed with joy. But the reality of how that life would be very different because of what it means to be remote. How do you get to school? Where do you go shopping? 

SE: Thank you so much for talking with me and congratulations on the book. It was so much fun to talk about this.

OE: Thank you.

Sydney Ellison
 is a Brooklyn-based artist whose work addresses themes of gaze and intersectionality primarily through collage and self-portraiture. Ellison is an art photography student at Pratt Institute and an editor of The Photographer’s Greenbook, a resource hub for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Advocacy within the lens-based art community.
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Estate of Laura Aguilar Donates Works to Light Work’s Permanent Collection

With enormous pleasure and gratitude, Light Work announces the acquisition of works from the estate of photographer Laura Aguilar (1959 – 2018). The self-portraits, consisting of two triptychs and four singular black-and-white images, represent Aguilar’s exploration of the lived realities of members of various marginalized groups, including women, lesbians, Latinas, the working class, obese people, and those with mental health struggles and learning disabilities. It humbles us to receive this gift of six photographic works from this extraordinary artist. We consider it an honor to join her estate and other art institutions in the stewardship of her artistic legacy through the sharing of these important works.

 In May of 1993, Laura Aguilar was an artist-in-residence at Light Work. This was a prolific period for Aguilar; she entered Light Work following the success of her iconic Three Eagles Flying and the series, Clothed/Unclothed. Aguilar applied for the month-long residency after her colleague and friend, Willie Middlebrook, completed his residency in 1992. He suggested that she create the body of work comprising 12 Lauras and Don’t Tell Her Art Can’t Hurt as a means to further influence her series of nudes in nature.  

Laura Aguilar, Center #70 (abc), 2000-2001, Gelatin silver print , 8 x 10 in.

Before Aguilar’s 2016 retrospective, Show and Tell, she wanted to create the Laura Aguilar Trust to protect her legacy. Aguilar spent time with co-trustees Christopher Velasco and Sybil Venegas to clarify her wishes for how to handle her work after her death. One primary goal was to make sure that her work found its way to institutional collections for future generations to study. Light Work is one of those institutions. Aguilar often spoke so warmly of her experience here and encouraged many aspiring photographers to apply. After her residency, Aguilar gave the Light Work Collection two of her Clothed/Unclothed prints (1993), the 12 Lauras, and three unpublished prints from her trip to Mexico. Since her death, the Laura Aguilar Trust of 2016 has placed her works in a number of collections. As a thank you, the Trust wanted to give Light Work a range of significant works that continued Aguilar’s legacy after her residency. This gift includes Windows (Nikki on my Mind) (1990), Center #70 (abc) (2000-2001), and selected images from the Stillness & Motion series (1999). 

Laura Aguilar died in 2018 at age fifty-eight, just as recognition of her work was gaining momentum. Her eponymous retrospective, Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell, at the Vincent Price Art Museum in Monterey Park, California, was the breakout exhibition of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA: Latin American and Latino Art in LA 2017-2018 and also Aguilar’s last exhibition during her lifetime. Since her death, she has joined the ranks of other iconic female photographers.

Laura Aguilar, Stillness #30, 1999, Gelatin Silver print, 11 x 14 in.

“We are honored by the donation of work by Laura Aguilar,” said Dan Boardman, Light Work’s director. “Aguilar was a visionary artist who exemplifies our mission to support emerging underrepresented artists at pivotal early points in their careers. This gift will aid students, members, and visiting artists as they use our Collection for research and inspiration.” 

Header image: Laura Aguilar, Windows (Nikki on my Mind), 1990, Three Gelatin Silver prints, 8 x 10 in each


The Light Work Collection is an extensive and diverse archive that maps the trends and developments in contemporary photography. There are currently more than 4,000 works of art in Light Work’s archive. The Collection contains all original work, including color and black-and-white photographic prints, alternative processes, collages, installation pieces, artist books, portfolios, and publications. Online visitors will find early work by many artists who have gone on to significant acclaim after their Light Work residencies, winning coveted awards, exhibiting work in prestigious museums, and securing top gallerists to represent them. This noteworthy collection includes all genres of expression found in contemporary photography, including documentary, abstract, experimental, and conceptual work. The Collection has grown over the past four decades due to the generosity of former artists-in-residence and individual donors.

Explore the Light Work Collection online at http://collection.lightwork.org

Review: Carl Mellor on James Henkel’s Object Lessons

This review is written by Carl Mellor, a freelance writer. He covered visual arts for the Syracuse New Times from 1994 to June 2019. Mellor continues to write about exhibits and artists in the Syracuse area.

James Henkel’s solo exhibition at Light Work samples an extensive body of work, one created during a career spanning more than 30 years. Henkel photographs discarded objects of all kinds: pitchers, cups and bowls, toys, bricks and bits of concrete, and most of all, books. He gathers ordinary items of no discernible value, repairs or repositions them, and ultimately creates memorable images.

The current show, for example, includes Henkel’s photo of a comb, with both physical reality and a sense of illusion playing a role. The comb stands on one end, appearing to find its balance and perhaps even move on. Henkel’s lens and composition skills have transformed the object.

Similarly, a photo of two toothbrushes places them standing up and in close proximity to each other. The head of each toothbrush touches its counterpart, suggesting visual implications. From one perspective, this looks like two figures embracing. From another, there’s a touch of irony in this view of one toothbrush massaging another toothbrush instead of teeth.

A third photo shows an artificial arm standing on its own. The hand’s fingers are thrust into a surface, inviting viewers to ask questions. Where did the arm come from? Why was it discarded?

installation image courtesy of Julie K. Herman Photography

Elsewhere, the exhibit documents Henkel’s multiple approaches to the objects he photographs. For “Brick #2,” he stacks bricks which, in the presence of light, cast a long, jagged shadow. That piece is a companion to “Bricks #5,” a work also encompassing bricks and a shadow.

And Henkel plays with ceramic objects that are damaged and not fully restored. A pitcher’s handle is strapped to one side, but much of one side is missing. Chips from the battered object reside nearby. We view the object as it currently exists, not as it once was. A second photo, “Two-Handed Vase,” operates in the same context; an additional handle is strapped on.

“Shallow Bowl,” one of the best pieces in the exhibit, offers another example of Henkel’s creativity. We don’t see the bowl’s exterior at all. Instead, the camera’s perspective seems to come from within the bowl, extending up through a surface opening. We get a glimpse of a forest scene outside.

The exhibition also references Henkel’s intense interest in books. He’s clearly comfortable working with them, and that translates into interesting, incisive images.

In one instance, he depicts a tall, frayed book cover with a much smaller book strapped to it. A second work portrays a book cover combined with an illustration of a medieval ship. In a third piece, a book’s innards are wrapped around a largely intact volume.

“English Poet,” meanwhile, consists of pages cut up and collaged. Viewers see a partial view of a man’s face, a similar view of a second face, and a caption: “English poet, novelist and critic.”

Mentioning those works offers only preliminary discussion of Henkel’s facility for interpreting cast-off books. Among other things, these are different from other objects photographed by the artist.

Books contain text and offer narratives and ideas in formats as different as novels, biography, and poetry. That challenges viewers to compare and contrast books and objects such as bricks and ceramics.

installation image courtesy of Julie K. Herman Photography

That challenge, of course, comes by implication. At the very least, Henkel’s photos, taken as a group, reference the meaning of objects in our lives. When do they have emotional import? When do they have little or no impact?

Those questions aren’t part of a seminar. Henkel is a talented visual artist who’s able to work with varied materials and to keep improvising successfully. “James Henkel: Object Lessons” nicely communicates his skills and points to themes in his work. It offers a fine overview of a veteran photographer’s work.

Henkel, it should be noted, has taken part in many exhibitions over the years. Indeed, he’s shown his work at Cavallo Point Gallery in San Francisco, Flanders Art Gallery in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Nash Gallery at the University of Minnesota, among other venues in the United States. In addition, his images have appeared in galleries in Iran, Russia and China.

His solo exhibit is on display in Light Work’s Kathleen O. Ellis Gallery. A second show, devoted to work created by winners of the 2021 Light Work grants, is on view in the Hallway Gallery. It features artworks by Carla Liesching, Paul Pearce and Jessica Magallanes Martinez.

The Light Work exhibit closes December 9, 2021


All programs are free and open to the public. For parking information, visit parking.syr.edu

Thursday, November 4, 5-7 p.m. — Gallery Reception

Thursday, November 4, 6 p.m. — Gallery talk with exhibiting artist James Henkel