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A Natural Order – The Guardian

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.”

A Natural Order – Libération

A Natural Order – Time LightBox

Time LightBox
Joanna Lehan, International Center of Photography

From urban beekeeping to artisanal pickling, there’s an uptick in America’s interest in doing it ourselves. Photographer Lucas Foglia has been in touch with this pre-consumer age mindset his entire life, having grown up on a small Long Island farm where, he says, his family “heated our house with wood, farmed and canned our food, and bartered the plants we grew for everything from shoes to dental work.” For the past five years the Yale-trained artist has been photographing a network of off-the-gird communities in the southeastern United States. The work has just been published in a lush, large-format monograph, A Natural Order.

Tucked away in the woods and fields of rural Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia, some of the communities Foglia visited are religious, others are united by a passion for embracing ancestral ways of hunting, foraging and building, others are motivated by predictions of global economic collapse.

Foglia’s subjects live with equal measure grit and beauty. In one photo, a toddler in a grubby, winged fairy dress reclines on a quilt and gazes at the sky, a gnawed venison rib clutched in one hand. In another, a salvaged sink is propped on boards, and tucked into edenic bramble. His photos of interiors highlight their simple rustic allure, is if shot for a high-end design magazine for survivalists. A bathroom painted in a hip shade of teal features an abundance of fluffy monogrammed towels, pillar candles on a rough-hewn pedestal; in the claw-foot tub a butchered deer soaks, the seeping haunches surrounded in watermelon-pink bathwater.

The stories of what compelled any given individual to pursue this experience are untold in A Natural Order. Instead, through Foglia’s keen eye for detail and tremendous sense of composition, we simply get a glimpse of their way of life. However, clothing—or, alternatively, the lack thereof—clues us in as to which type of group they might belong. There are some long-haired parents and their cherubic children in their natural state. There are those wearing self-styled outfits made of hides and natural fibers. And there are Christian women and girls who wear modest homemade frocks, even in the swimming hole.

The general theme Foglia has taken on has been touched on by other contemporary art photographers over the last ten years, including Justine Kurland, Joel Sternfeld and Taj Forer. However, Foglia is particularly interested in the way these communities straddle the ancestral and the modern, as his own family did. “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,” says Foglia of his subjects. Interested readers can even ferret out the websites of some of the communities he includes, and find themselves tempted to go there and take classes on traditional building or foraging for food. One can also gain insight—and learn real skills— from, Wildifoodin’ the anonymously –authored, illustrated ‘zine included with the book. Part journal, part survival manual, it reads like a poet’s version of the Whole Earth Catalog, the bible for 1970’s back-to-the-landers.

Foglia’s book implies that there is a new movement afoot, one whose philosophies are diverse, but all share self-reliance as a key value. If so, it’s right on time, economically speaking. In an era when houses can be foreclosed, and most of our food is from unknown sources, the beauty that Foglia’s pictures captures is a recognition of human needs: the needs to create, and to control our destinies.

A Natural Order – The Independent in London

Adam Jacques reviewed A Natural Order for The Independent in London

What would living life “off the grid” – with no electricity or running water – be like? One man who can offer an insight is the American photographer Lucas Foglia. It was growing up on a small family farm in New York state that Foglia got his first taste of the back-to-land movement: his family heated their house with wood, farmed and canned their own food and used the plants they grew to barter for everything from shoes to dental work.

“But while my family followed many of the [back-to-land] principles, by the time I was 18 we also owned three tractors, four cars and five computers, and this mixture of modern and rustic living made me curious to see what a completely self-sufficient way of living might look like,” says Foglia.

So, from 2006 through to 2010, Foglia travelled throughout the south-eastern United States, interviewing and photographing a network of people who had left the cities and suburbs to live rurally, relying on his family and friends’ connections to make contact with these hardcore pro-isolationists.

The resulting series, “A Natural Order”, is a startlingly primitive series of images that make us question the value of our own gilded lives. These wild-living communities build their homes from local materials, obtain their water from nearby springs, and hunt, gather or grow their own food.

It’s a hard life, for sure – so why do they do it? “Most people here were in search of a less chaotic life, freed from the excesses of consumer culture,” says Foglia. “I hope these images start a conversation. I don’t expect people to radically change their lives, but they can take some steps – such as learning more about gardening – to become more self-sufficient.”

A Natural Order – Hotshoe International

Hotshoe International
Sophie Balhetchet

How many of us have had dreams of leaving?

Turning one’s back on the material world.
Living in Nature.
Growing food, fishing and hunting.
Swimming in rivers. Cooking on campfires.
Waking with the dawn and retiring with the sun?

The Modern Age and its clamour held at bay by our own self-sufficiency.

Dreams of living off the grid.

Lucas Foglia has spent five years documenting the lives of the people who have decided to do just this.

In his remarkable series : A Natural Order (and now a meticulously curated book of the same title, published by Nazraeli Press) – Foglia has photographed and recorded a network of people throughout the southeastern United States who, motivated by environmental concerns, religious beliefs, or predictions of economic collapse, have made their exodus from cities and suburbs to re-create their lives in remote natural places.

Foglia is fascinated by re-invention – the capacity to make a decisive intervention into one’s life and emerge changed. Describing himself “more drawn to people who had recently made their choice and who are still trying to figure it out”, his images are at once nuanced and arresting. Some hint at a ‘back-story’, some follow the same person over several years as they grow-up; others have a lyricism and stillness, a grace of gesture which seems to capture the lives of people in tune with circadian rhythms.

Foglia puts it in these terms : “Photographs, to me, are interpretations. Some images were candid and others were performed for my camera. I worked from the events that were happening around me, and I didn’t make things up from scratch because I think the world is more complicated than the things I can come up with in my head”.

At first glance, this is an image of an Amish or Mennonite family, showing the clothes and appurtenances of their community. But the willingness to pose for Foglia’s camera is, of itself, unusual. Then there’s the evidence of a bond of trust between the family and the photographer, who appear to be actively complying in the staging of their family portrait. The caption imparts the names of husband and wife, and the information that the unadorned woman with the unwavering gaze is the same Christina featured in the photo she is holding of herself in full white wedding dress and jewels. And then there’s the hint of a tattoo on George’s arm.

Neither Foglia nor his subjects are making any attempt to eradicate the story of their past. It’s owned and assimilated in a complex understanding of what makes us individual, and how we forge our identities and values.

This is a central preoccupation of Foglia’s, returning as he does to a line from Kurt Vonnegut that has stuck in his head: “Be careful what you pretend to be because you are what you pretend to be.”

Three beautiful women with luxurious hair are wading, thigh-high and fully clothed, in a tranquil river. Foglia explains that whilst these sisters are not explicitly members of a Christian community, they have chosen to live near one. And their choice to swim in their dresses both
fits their values and also allows them to fit in.

As Foglia puts it : “There is an idealism to the way they live. And when you live a lifestyle for long enough, it becomes Culture and when it becomes Culture, it becomes you”.

This is a penetrating insight into the relationship between custom and belief. Foglia’s photographs have a powerful capacity to depict simultaneously both the context, the physical world of his subject, and to capture a moment of intense psychological revelation.

Foglia wants his photographs to be connected to his values. Not just the “what” but the “how” of their making. But above all he wants them to be “seductive” – a word he’s borrowed from Taryn Simon. Both artists go to places where they expect to find a story. But once there, it becomes all about the picture – an intuitive response to a subject based more on impulse than reason. And this in turn becomes the litmus test when, back home, only the most ‘seductive’ images make the cut and in turn redefine the story.

David in his Wigwam, Kevin’s Land, Virginia is a touchstone image for Foglia because it has all of the components he values. “The light and colors create the scene. The things on the ground are not arranged for the photograph, yet each object says something about David. The picture feels intimate. It resulted from years of knowing him, and from the fact that it was extremely cold that morning. Because it was cold we stayed inside. David had built a window in the wigwam and slept right next to it so he could see the sunrise”.

Lucas Foglia describes his own upbringing in his Artist’s Statement, growing up on a small farm in the New York suburbs, and living by many of the principles of the back-to-the-land movement. But his family was far from doctrinaire, ending-up with cars, computers and the full panoply of mechanization.

Foglia (unlike most of his subjects whose lives are, at their essence, acts of rebellion), still lives largely by the values of his upbringing and its lightly-worn accommodations.

He reflects, “the photograph of Cora and Wesley is the last portrait I made of Cora in 2010. She called me a few weeks ago to invite me to their wedding next September, when Cora turns 18. Over the five years of working on the project I saw some children rebel while others built houses next door to their parents”.

Foglia’s mission is not to proselytize but to start conversations, and his work combines photography with recordings of the people he photographs. Vivid and colloquial, Foglia’s audios enable people living off the grid to speak directly:

“Talia, who lives at Wildroots Homestead in North Carolina said: ‘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. 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.’”

A Natural Order is not a campaign to get people to live off the grid. The photographs present neither idyll nor horror, though a few images do shock and many seem paradisiac. If they have a message at all, it is as a testament to individual self-determination, with all the manifold paradoxes and adjustments when human beings try to live according to their principles. Above all, it’s a work that challenges the reductive effect of stereotype, favouring the complexities of a psychologically derived enquiry.

A Natural Order – Photo-Eye with Laura Moya

Photo-Eye BLOG
Laura Moya

Communal living has been a continuous presence in American cultural history, threading its way through the centuries starting with the Dutch Mennonites in Delaware in the 1600s, soon followed by the Shakers and shorter-lived groups such as the Amana Colonies, the Rappites, and the Oneida Community. Hippie communes of the 1960s promoted the communal experience in full color, adding a new patina to the rejection of society’s norms in favor of alternative approaches to life and work.

Society has always had its citizens who have built intentional communities as they advanced religious and political causes, promoted social reform, homesteaded land, and produced art.

History lesson aside, Lucas Foglia’s book A Natural Order, published by Nazraeli Press, is an important recording of some contemporary alternative communities in North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia. The book gives us a series of complex portraits – of people, places, things (and situations) that mostly read as poetry, sometimes with a little slice of “is this slightly disturbing, or is it just me?” to consider: A three-year old girl is dressed in a woodland fairy costume, blue fingernail polish chipped, dirty hands holding a mostly-gnawed deer rib. Chunks of venison lay in blood-pink water in a bathtub, in preparation for canning, surrounded by cheery green walls, a hand-hooked bathmat, and monogrammed towels. A teenage boy sits on a bed dressed in camouflage; gun resting on headboard, a confederate flag with a skull and snake hangs as a window covering. A naked father and daughter play in a pond, she crouches on his chest, he floats Christ-like on his back, eyes closed.

Gorgeously printed as expected from Nazraeli Press, some unexpected elements in this oversized book include a comprehensive reading list (want to hone up on your primitive and homesteading skills, or learn who is publishing some good field guides these days?) solicited from Foglia’s subjects. Also included is a traditional “zine” from a resident of the Wildroots Homestead in North Carolina, illustrated with drawings of bird species and edible plants. Titled wildlifoodin, it serves both as a memoir and a manual (how to build a debris shelter, how to correctly gut a deer). Readers are encouraged to make copies of the “zine” and give them away.

Why do I think this book is important? Because it seems that right now, as a nation, we are at a critical crossroads economically, politically, socially, and environmentally. Who doesn’t feel sometimes like they want to throw their hands up and try to create their own system of self-sufficiency?

The people in A Natural Order have done just that. — Laura Moya

Laura Moya: In a way, you are visually recording the continuation of the libertarianism movement in America – it is amazing that it is still an option in this country to this extent. How do you see your work documenting this movement in a historical context?

Lucas Foglia: From 2006 through 2010, I traveled throughout the southeastern United States befriending, photographing, and interviewing a network of people who left cities and suburbs to live off the grid. People have moved back to the land there for generations because land is affordable and arable, because a well-chosen plot will likely have a fresh water 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.

LM: There are different communities portrayed in the book. What united all of the communities that you photographed?

LF: There are over a dozen different communities represented in the book. In moving off the grid, some people were motivated by environmental concerns, religious beliefs, or predictions of the economic recession. Everyone I photographed was working to maintain a self-sufficient lifestyle.

At the same time, no one I found lives in complete isolation from the mainstream. Many have websites that they update using laptop computers, and cell phones 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.

LM: The reality of a “perfect utopia” is most likely non-existent. All intentional communities (as well mainstream society) have a “grey,” if not “dark” side. What are some of the hardships people wrestled with in the various communities you spent time with? What are some of the tensions you noted?

LF: “It’s hard to feed yourself for a year,” Lowell said. “One problem you run into is that most people who are independent enough to try to live separate from worldly things are too independent to listen to each other.”

Living off the grid in the woods can be isolating, and growing enough food to feed a family takes a lot of work. Some communities struggled to maintain their religious observance. Others struggled to teach their children liberal values despite the conservative neighbors. Some of the communities I visited were patriarchal. While most children were homeschooled, they knew a lot more about wild edible plants than they knew about mathematics.

Natalie said “A lot of us who live here came with a kind of post-activist outlook—realizing that the world is really messed up, that nature is being destroyed, and being incredibly dissatisfied with consumer culture and the whole idea of success in modern society. All of us wanted to live close to the land… Of course it’s not perfect, but it’s the closest that I’ve ever seen when it’s functioning.”

LM: Content-wise, your work falls in a place somewhere between documentary and anthropological portraiture – with a good dose of “fine art” thrown in. Talk about finding your subjects, choices in composition, and talk about making “discoveries” in your shooting process.

LF: I met almost everyone portrayed in the book through friends of my family, and friends of my friends.

Photographs to me, are interpretations. Some of the photographs in the book are candid and others are performed for my camera. I worked from the events that were happening around me, and I didn’t make things up from scratch because I think the world is more complicated than the things I can come up with in my head. The photographs I made resulted from my relationships with the people and spaces I photographed, and the narrative of the book resulted from the choice and sequence of the best photographs.

LM: Sometimes the most “natural” imagery (child given milk straight from goat’s teat, people wearing animal skins for clothing) is tremendously strange and exotic to the “mainstream” eye. How is it that we have generally become so detached?

LF: Anais Nin wrote, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” For instance, when I found the black bear at Kevin’s land in Virginia, I was struck by how human it seemed. Similarly, Natalie, who I first photographed in 2006, said, “When I skinned my first raccoon, I cried. It looked so much like a fetus to me. It was really hard. But it’s easy now. It’s interesting how that changes.”

LM: You do well by not pushing propaganda toward your viewer. Talk about how your strongest images are simultaneously “intimate” and “ambiguous” – can you give an example?

LF: Above all I’m interested in making a seductive photograph. I think any photograph that is didactic, that tells a viewer what to think, is easy to forget. My hope is that these photographs provoke people to ask questions and start conversations.

Talia, who also lives at Wildroots Homestead in North Carolina said: “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.”

A Natural Order – Authors, Schools and Gatherings

I asked the people I photographed what authors and texts they would recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about the communities and activities pictured in A Natural Order. The following is a compilation of their answers.

Primitive and Homesteading Skills

Wendell Berry, Robin Blankenship, Gregory J. Davenport, Thomas J. Elpel, Peter Goodchild, Richard and Linda Jamison, Horace Kephart, Dale Martin, John and Geri McPherson, Scott Nearing and Helen Nearing, Larry Dean Olsen, Michael Pewtherer, David Petersen, Matt Richards, Eric Sloane, Tamarack Song, U.S. Army Handbooks, Reader’s Digest Back to Basics, Steve Watts, David Wescott, Steven Edholm and Tamara Wilder

Food and Medicine

Steve Brill, Anthony J. Cichoke, Francois Couplan, Doug Elliott, Sally Fallon, Euell Gibbons, Rosemary Gladstar, Alan Hall, David Hoffman, Jessica Houdret, Sandor Ellix Katz, E. Barrie Kavasch, Deborah Lee, Christopher Nyerges, Andrea Pieroni and Lisa Leimer Price, Weston A. Price, Linda Runyon, Vickie Shufer, Samuel Thayer, Susan Weed

Field Guides

National Audubon Society, Thomas Elpel, David Foster, National Geographic, Janice Glim-Lacy, William Carey Grimm, James H. Miller, National Wildlife Federation, Newcomb Guide, Peterson Field Guides, Sibley Field Guides, May Theilgaard Watts

Gatherings:

Southeast:
www.primitiveskills.org
www.fireflygathering.org

Northeast:
www.ancestralknowledge.org/
www.draftanimalpowernetwork.org

West:
www.backtracks.net

A Natural Order – Where the title came from

Definition of Natural Order: the physical universe considered as an orderly system subject to natural (not human or supernatural) laws.

A Natural Order – Brown University David Winton Bell Gallery

Exhibition images, an essay by curator Jo-Ann Conklin and videos of talks by storyteller Doug Elliott and community activist and urban farmer Will Allen are online here.

A Natural Order – Nazraeli Press