By David Rosenberg
How complex is the simple life?
Beginning in 2006, photographer Lucas Foglia spent four years photographing people who chose to reject modern urban living, opting instead for an “off the grid” lifestyle in rural communities around the southeastern United States. Foglia turned the series, A Natural Order, into a book, published earlier this year by Nazraeli Press.
Foglia found the reasons that many of the subjects in the book left their city or suburban lifestyles to be varied
“Many of the people were motivated by environmental concerns; others were driven by religious beliefs or predictions of economic collapse,” Foglia said. While his subjects didn’t all have the same politics or motivations, what they did have in common was how they often constructed their lives. “They chose to build their homes from local materials; obtain their water from nearby springs; and hunt, gather, or grow their own food.”
Foglia wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with the idea of letting go of modern conveniences. He grew up on a farm in the suburbs of Long Island. His childhood house was close enough to shopping malls and supermarkets, but his family incorporated many time-honored methods of sustainable living such as heating the house with wood, canning food harvested on the family farm, and bartering plants for necessities such as shoes and dental work.
“Going to visit the families that I photographed, I found the experiences to be more comfortable than a ‘city person’ might expect,” explained Foglia. “That being said, living off the grid in the woods can be isolating, and growing enough food to feed a family takes a lot of work.” Perhaps that is one reason some of the people Foglia photographed lived in organized communities including Russell Creek Community in Tennessee, Twin Oaks Intentional Community in Virginia, and Wildroots Homestead in North Carolina. Other people purchased land of their own and lived independently.
“People have moved back to the land … because land is affordable and arable,” began Foglia. “Because a well-chosen plot will likely have a freshwater spring on it, and because the libertarian philosophy that is ubiquitous in the region gives a person, family or community the freedom to live how they choose.”
Foglia mentioned that living off the grid isn’t an all-or-nothing venture.
“Many (of the subjects) have websites that they update using laptop computers and cellphones that they charge on car batteries or solar panels. They do not wholly reject the modern world. Instead, they step away from it and choose the parts that they want to bring with them.”
So will A Natural Order inspire others to try a new lifestyle?
Building a life like this isn’t for everyone, his subjects recognize, but they do see what their way of life can teach others. One of the women Foglia met, Talia, who lives at Wildroots Homestead in North Carolina, noted the difficulty in completely leaving behind an established life but said there are parts of an off-the-grid lifestyle that could be incorporated elsewhere.
“Over the years I’ve come to realize that most people are not going to, nor do they have any desire to, radically change their lives. Most people can’t walk away from the kids’ schools or their jobs or their mortgages, or whatever. They just can’t, and it would be asking too much for them to do it. But they can take some steps in just teaching themselves—learning more about gardening, learning more about food preservation, and taking care of their own health. So there are things people can do to become a little more self-sufficient … if there’s any hope at all of being able to transition into a less chaotic life.”
By Sean O’Hagan
Lucas Foglia: the photographer in search of off-the-grid Americans
Lucas Foglia, who is 29 and looks 19, grew up on a farm on Long Island just 30 miles from Manhattan. His parents were part of the post 1960s “back-to-the land” movement, fired up on the writing of self-sufficiency pioneers such as Helen and Scott Nearing and Wendell Berry. By the time Foglia reached adolescence, the woods and fields around the farm had become suburbanised, but his parents continued to grow and preserve their own food, and to barter with other families throughout the area.
Having graduated from Yale, where he was taught by Gregory Crewdson, Foglia bought a camper van and set off with his camera and a few necessities on the thousand-mile drive to the Appalachians. “Photography for me,” he says, “is a mechanism to learn about things. I wanted to see if I could find the absolute, if there were communities or individuals who lived off the grid and were wholly self-sufficient.”
Five years and several long trips south later, Foglia has produced one of the most beautiful and thought-provoking photobooks of the year. Called A Natural Order, it is a portrait of another America peopled by communities that have taken Foglia’s parents’ vision several steps further. “I found people who lived without needing money, who built houses from trees grown on their land, who drank fresh water from mountain streams,” says Foglia. “But I did not find anyone who was absolutely off the grid. Many of them had cellphones, laptops, pickup trucks, solar panels connected to electric sockets. Even the communities that were so off the map that they did not have a postal address were plugged in in some way.”
Foglia’s method is to “meet people, build relationships, then make photographs that come out of those relationships”. It shows. The images in the book are often deceptively simple, sometimes deceptively romantic: young women pick fruit from hedgerows; men till the land; a child in Christian dress gazes though the sun-dappled door of a barn.
But there are darker subtexts. In one shot, a youth in camouflage fatigues, sits alone in a room with a .22 calibre automatic rifle nestling on the window sill. In another, what looks like a traditional Mennonite family turns out to be an ex-nuclear engineer and his wife, both former members of the Hells Angels, who live near, but not within, an established Mennonite community. “There is a kind of radical libertarianism in the psyche around these parts of the country: rural Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina. So these new, back-to-the-land communities are tolerated. The prevailing attitude is: you can do what you want so long as you don’t bother each other.”
One or twice, Foglia came across a few communities that were cultish in aspect, and others that were “utterly patriarchal”. He also encountered families who lived beside traditional Amish or Mennonite communities; they adopted their way of dressing in order to escape paying taxes or sending their kids to regular schools. Sometimes, the back-to-the-land philosophy had unintended consequences. “Some kids I met had completely abandoned their parent’s values,” says Foglia, “Part of the risk for liberal people moving to really isolated rural conservative communities is that the kids can become more like the neighbours than their parents.”
Foglia describes himself as a documentary photographer who collaborates with his subjects in order to search for some essential truth about their lives. He has befriended and kept in touch with many of the people in the book, one of whom created a kind of zine-style self-help guide to wild food that comes with every copy.
Foglia cites the “photographic lyricism” of William Gedney, Emmet Gowin and Larry Towell as influences. And the abiding influence of the Yale school of rigorous formalism is in there, too. “I was taught by Crewdson that a photograph is something you look through at something else. Philip-Lorca diCorcia called Yale ‘a citadel of transparency’, which is a fancy way of saying we don’t look at the surface of a picture, but we create a perception of a world. That’s what I’m aiming at.”
The world Foglia depicts in A Natural Order is a constantly surprising one. A picture of a decomposing bear hints at the danger lurking in these other edens. A man working a 100-year-old plough pulled by a pickup truck speaks of the contradictions of the contemporary back-to-the-land movement. “I shot over 45,000 pictures,” says Foglia. “There are 45 in the book. I’m rigorous when it comes to editing. I want the best pictures to redefine the story. I want the work to be beautiful, but I don’t want the subject matter to be idealised. It’s a hard way of life, sometimes a dangerous one. You meet people with different aims and visions, from puritanical to utopian, but what they have in common is an ideal of independence.”