Photographer Tyler Stableford Explores The Lives of American Farmers

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All images by Tyler Stableford. Used with permission

In America, there is a current trend in placing a big value on things being American made or local. And nowhere is that value bigger than with food. Photographer Tyler Stableford hails from western Colorado and is surrounded by farmers–so he decided to do a documentary/fine art project on them. “The Farmers” was pitched to Canon, who agreed to sponsor the project and which was recently on display at Photoville 2014.

We talked to Tyler about gaining the trust of farmers, the rigors of doing a project like this, and the motivation behind it.

Phoblographer: Before you even began the project, what motivated you to want to do it?

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Tyler: I was excited to capture portraits, and really the living spirits, of the farmers and ranchers who are deeply tied to the land. I live in the small town of Carbondale in western Colorado, which is surrounded by ranches and farms. Over the years I have been increasingly drawn to photographing the men and women who grow our food.

Phoblographer: How exactly did you go about getting sponsors for the project?

Tyler: Well, first I had to dive into the project headlong on my own! My coworkers and I captured a range of sample images last winter and spring to establish a look for the project. I wanted the portraits to have a true radiance of the farmers’ souls; and to feel both timeless yet immediate. After I shot a few introductory images, I pitched the project to Canon. The initial phase of The Farmers project began as a series of behind-the-scenes videos for the Canon Digital Learning Center which featured the lenses I chose for each portrait. This was really fun for me, as lens choice plays a huge role in storytelling; and often one that is not immediately apparent. Here is a link to the series on the Canon site.

Phoblographer: When you begin a big project like the Farmers, you often need some sort of plan. How did you go about finding the farmers to create the images, gaining their trust, etc.

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Tyler: I started this project by reaching out to farmers and ranchers whom I knew here in my hometown. As I expanded my reach, I reached out through word of mouth, and by calling locals who might know of farmers in the towns I was going to be visiting. To gain their trust and to help explain the project, I showed the farmers photos stored on my phone with portraits of previous farmers I had shot. This really seemed to help. It wasn’t all easy going, though — sometimes I had to call a farmer six times to arrange a visit. Most seemed to want to avoid any kind of spotlight; and almost every single one asked, “Are we done?” Even after the first few frames!

Phoblographer: Tell us about the gear you used. Why Canon specifically?

Tyler: I used Canon cameras and lenses for the entire project, specifically the EOS 5D Mark III and 1D-X cameras; and a whole range of Canon lenses from the 14mm f/2.8L II USM to the 200mm f/2.8L IS USM. I have shot Canon cameras for decades, and I think when you see the amazing quality of the prints at the Photoville exhibition, which reflects the amazing quality of the optics and the cameras, it’s easy to understand why!

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My coworker Draper White and I printed the images with the Canon imagePROGRAF iPF8400 printer, using their Artistic Matte Canvas paper. I love this combination of printer and media as it brings the viewer in so crisply and intimately to the subject — there is no glass to obscure the final image. We frame the images on gallery-wrap frames with Breathing Color’s EasyWrappe Pro kits. I think the canvas gallery wrap presentation really helps the viewers connect more deeply to the farmers.

Phoblographer: Were there any instances where the gear broke down or something just wasn’t going right? All the rough and tumble must have taken a toll on something we’re sure.

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Tyler: As an outdoor photographer and cinematographer, my gear takes a beating throughout the year. We shot some of these images in driving snowstorms, others in hot weather. We never had an issue with any of the gear, honestly. I’ve used my Canon gear in -20F conditions to well over 100F in all range of snow and rain; not once have the elements damaged the cameras or lenses!

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Phoblographer: It’s a known fact that farmers are suffering due to global warming and rising prices, but what exactly was the message that you were trying to get across with this project? Is there one?

Tyler: I don’t have a message per se — yet I certainly have had a vision for the project since its inception. My goal has been to push myself to connect more deeply, with a small camera kit, to the eyes, the spirits and the stories of today’s farmers and ranchers. All in a single frame. The project is not an exposé on the state of American farming; rather I intend it to be an intimate connection with a handful of “normal” yet incredibly special people around the country.

Phoblographer: What’s your next big project?

Tyler: I’m actually diving into another farming project of sorts (which is exciting, as until this year, I haven’t done any farm projects!) — directing and shooting a vodka commercial for Woody Creek Distillers. They’re a craft distiller which grows and distills their own potatoes right here in the Aspen valley, with a farm-to-bottle process that is incredibly photogenic. The assignment is a really fun way to take what I’ve learned from The Farmers project and to capture the deep sense of dedication and craftsmanship in the Woody Creek Distillers brand.