Petru Suspended
an essay by Alan Ritch

Petru is suspended between the crisp texture of the haystack on which he stands and the dramatic clouded sky above him.  Kathleen McLaughlin’s camera fixes the graceful, efficient twist at the moment of release, the fork’s flick quick enough to move the hay from stack to cart and from the frozen stillness of her sharp, deep focus to the blur of implied movement.  While I claim more expertise in haymaking than in the history of photography, I do recognize a “decisive moment” when I see one.  Less familiar than other masterpieces of photographic timing, Cartier-Bresson’s joyful puddle-jumper, or Capa’s loyalist soldier hanging forever between life and death, Kathleen’s photograph is equally, literally momentous.  The scene has both dignity and drama, even for those who know nothing of the place and time and work. The photographer looks up from her ground to the maker of hay.  The artist looks up to the artisan.  She has come thousands of miles to find his family and their fragmented farm, to understand their ancient livelihood and to celebrate their obscure heroism.  They are the Carpathian counterparts of the endangered Appalachian farmers made famous by Agee and Evans.  They are part of a relic medieval society squeezed into a remote corner of the old world.

As a self-appointed connoisseur of the visual and textual imagery associated with hay, and virtual owner of thousands of paintings and photographs of this humble subject, I stumbled across Petru on Kathleen’s web-site in April 2004, drawn there by a phrase which proved to be more complex, more loaded with metaphor and moral value than the simple keywords which matched my simple interests.  “The color of hay” comes from what I took to be a Romanian saying (“The quality of a haystack can be told by its color.  The quality of a man by the time it takes him to bring one home. -- Calitatea unei capite se vede dupa culoarea ei.  Calitatea unui barbat dupa timpul cat ii ia sa o aduca acasa.”)  I learned much later that these simple, powerful sentences came not from the oral incantation of an old peasant but from the word processor of a contemporary urban Virginian, Kathleen’s husband Henry Woods. Henry’s short poetic essays and eloquent, economical captions provide the perfect complement to his partner’s images, on their web-site, in previously published pamphlets, and, at last, in this handsome book.  He seems not only to channel the rhythms of peasant speech but to echo the profound, timeless lessons of hard lives, thoughtfully lived.

Within minutes of discovering Petru and the Color of Hay, I emailed Kathleen an enthusiastic fan-letter, (not realizing then that the Romanian word for hay is fan), to which, within hours she responded with three messages of her own, each revealing a gift for friendship, generosity of spirit, and delight in what, until then, I’d feared was a peculiar, lonely obsession.  Our relationship grew and evolved over the next several months.  I intrigued her by comparing the Petru image to what is probably the earliest and possibly the most famous photograph of hay, Fox Talbot’s Lacock masterpiece from 1844.  The next time I visited the Talbot Museum at Lacock, a few miles from my sister’s village in Wiltshire, England, I sent Kathleen a pretty good print with the sharp shadow ladder marking diagonal time across the etched strata of the haystack.  More serendipitous strengthening of our shared bond came with my discovery of the Devonshire photographs of James Ravilious.  Naively, I thought him to be obscure.  I was impressed that Kathleen already knew his work well and acknowledged his influence on her own. 

Meanwhile, I continued to burrow in Kathleen’s so-called “leafpile” web site, enthralled by the aesthetic quality of her camera-work and the poignant, often witty precision of Henry’s documentary observations.  And I inferred from their accounts of their year with a Romanian farm family the same affection, curiosity and enthusiasm, which had characterized our mutual correspondence.  Initially, of course, my favorite image suites and slide sequences were those which documented the mowing, making, and moving of hay, but increasingly I became engaged by the general cultural geography of the Maramures landscape and the ethnology of the people who lived and worked there.  I read everything I could about this region and found other fine photographers who had been captivated by its picturesque qualities, among them Adam Woolfitt, Barry Lewis, Florin Andreescu, Kosei Miya, Dan Dinescu, Paul Nasca, and Dan Tataru.

As my online collection grew, so did my circle of correspondents and fellow fans of fan.  One, Caroline Juler, author of the Blue Guide to Romania, urged me to visit Maramures before irresistible forces of technology, economics, politics and tourism changed its traditional culture and landscape. Caroline introduced me to Anamaria Iuga, an anthropologist/photographer, who plans to do a dissertation of the folklore of Maramures haymaking, and Caroline, of course, knew Kathleen and her camera.   Within this circle of friends, I found myself returning most often to the latter’s work, especially the black and white images from her medium format camera, into which the people of Maramures gazed with utter confidence, tinged with the friendly, gentle irony of those who are not at all surprised that an outsider would find them interesting.  I learned later that Kathleen’s status had changed, in the eyes of those who knew her, from odd foreigner to irresistible intruder to welcome guest to honorary family member to revered saint!  Indeed, the most common phrase I heard when I visited Kathleen’s host family, the Bercis of Sarbi, in the fall of 2006, was “Sfanta Catalina.”  Evidently she had more than repaid those she visited, not just with material support but with the profound, reciprocal affection which is core both to the Maramures social tradition and to Kathleen’s own generous personality. 

Her personality informs the images in this long-awaited book.  Beyond the brilliant technical proficiency which etches the texture of hay and wool, the withered wrinkles of worn-out hands and the ivory of children’s cheeks onto these pages, we feel the joy and compassion of the artist. We sense the stoicism, not just of sheep and shepherd in a snowy field, but of the woman behind the lens.  We see her own respect and admiration reflected in the eyes of the women whom she watched and with whom she worked and walked, in the scattered mountain fields and on the way home from the market, miles away. Her work transcends the hackneyed convergence of poverty and the picturesque and achieves a dignity worthy of her subjects and their world. 

How long this world will last is doubtful.  Petru’s generation may be the last to cut the hay with scythes, to build haystacks in their thousands with hand-made wooden forks, and to move them by horse-drawn sleds across the snow to steamy cow-sheds, behind the hand-carved wooden gates.  Petru’s children lack their father’s determination to sustain the old ways.  Drawn by television images and Internet attractions, they will abandon village-life for the distant city.   Other forces will accelerate this familiar demographic disintegration, by new political and economic realities and by technological innovation.  Romania’s eager entry into greater Europe threatens to sacrifice traditional rural systems to new monolithic regulation, which precludes cozy relationships among farmers and cows, milk and middens, which enforces rigid environmental codes, and which fosters economies of scale and land consolidation.  New mechanized tools for mowing, baling and moving the hay are already, understandably, tempting the farmers to substitute artificial power for their own tired hands and horses.  And, ironically, Kathleen’s brilliant art, conserving so vividly on this handsome book’s pages, precious lives and landscapes, will also contribute to their imminent demise.  Who can resist the lure of Maramures?  Not Kathleen.  Not I.  And each of us will lead, by our enthusiasm, a host of others, and thus contribute to the entropy that attends that most transformative of all industries, tourism.  Guesthouses will replace farmhouses.  Shoddy souvenirs will replace traditional tools and textiles.   Casual snapshots and videos will strip this world of wonder.   How fortunate, then, that Kathleen McLaughlin’s eyes and art were drawn to medieval Maramures before it joined the new millennium, to little Sarbi before it became a global destination, and to the Berci family before its children scattered to the cities, much like those in which this grand book will be opened and admired, long after the place it celebrates has disappeared.