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.”