Almost Utopia: The Residents and Radicals of Pikes Falls, Vermont, 1950, Photographs by Rebecca Lepkoff, Exhibition at the Vermont Center for Photography

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Almost Utopia: The Residents and Radicals of Pikes Falls, Vermont, 1950, photographs by Rebecca Lepkoff, exhibition at the Vermont Center for Photography with book, photographs by Rebecca Lepkoff, text by Greg Joly, Vermont Historical Society, 2008

Rebecca Lepkoff, Oscar Smith, 1950
Rebecca Lepkoff, Oscar Smith, 1950

In posterity Scott Nearing (1883-1983) has led a double life of sorts. In the rural areas of southern Vermont and coastal Maine, where he spent the second half of his century, a virtual cult surrounds his memory and that of his wife Helen, as pioneers of the Back-to-the-Land Movement, which was decisively influenced by their book, Living the Good Life, and its sequels. These remain popular with even the most suburban-minded second home buyers as guides to country living. While the movement flourished most purely and most intensely in the 1960’s and 1970’s, it continues today, focused around the environmental movement, and exerts a significant influence on at least certain aspects of how many of us live, even in places like Cambridge, Park Slope, or here in Williamstown. The Nearings’ teachings about simple, self-sufficient living in rural surroundings and their ideals are perpetuated by The Good Life Center at Forest Farm in Harborside, Maine, their last home.

Fewer people know about Scott’s earlier life as a professor of Economics and radical agitator. Fired by the University of Pennsylvania for his efforts opposing child labor, he spent the rest of his life outside academia, writing pamphlets and agitating for social and economic equality, or at least fairness, and against war. While Henry David Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi appear as the guiding spirits of the second half of his life, Marx and Lenin were powerful early influences. Nearing was a close friend and associate of John Reed, the author ofTen Days That Shook the World. Throughout his life, the American authorities considered Scott Nearing a subversive, and the FBI maintained voluminous files on his activities in rural Vermont and Maine.

While Thoreau connects Nearing with the heart of American Transcendentalism, his work as an economist and political radical derive from Thoreau’s longer-lived European contemporary, Karl Marx. Helen, on the other hand, was brought up a Theosophist and was close to Krishnamurti, whom I have recently had occasion to mention as an influence on the young Jackson Pollock. Both intellectuals to the core, the Nearings brought these powerful streams in early twentieth century American thought into practice when they moved into their farmhouse in Jamaica, Vermont in 1932, the scene of Rebecca Lepkoff’s vivid black and white photographs.

While maintaining his foundations in Socialism, Nearing’s ambition was to nuture a social and economic movement based on cooperation rather than on authoritarianism, a model he considered to be inherently American. The community in the Pikes Falls district of Jamaica was an experiment in the strict sense, but also a way of life which was daily reality for the Nearings and their followers for twenty years. One highly successful aspect of it was the business they built around maple sugaring and candies—a modest luxury that became popular and showed that their ideas could work. Not all of the settlers did as well. Particularly in the years after the Second World War this attracted numerous fiercely independent Thoreauvian types and their families to join them in Jamaica. It also set the stage for the downfall of the community in its lack of structure, as well as in the chemistry of its individual members. Other factors played their part, but we need not discuss it here.

Rebecca Lepkoff, who, at 92, still shoots on the streets of New York City and prints in her darkroom, first took up a camera in the 1930’s, photographing the life of the working classes in New York. She became a member of the left-leaning Photo League in 1947, just when it was proscribed by the Attorney General as a Communist front. An interest in the Nearings and their work led Lepkoff and her husband Gene to acquire a nearby farmhouse. She took the photographs on view at the Vermont Center for Photography during the summers of 1950 and 1951. Never intended for publication or exhibition, but, carefully cropped and printed as they were, they were put away in a box (hardly an archival box, according to Elaine Beckwith’s preface to the Vermont Historical Society’s must-have publication) and only “rediscovered” in 1993.

Opening a box of old photographscan be a terrifying experience. One never knows what ghosts will emerge from the past to haunt the viewer. In this case, while the scene is not exactly pretty—we see determined individualists at work and at play in hard, even primitive conditions—we are to some degree protected by the firmly established observational distance of Rebecca Lepkoff’s already seasoned eye. Herself a woman of diminutive physical stature, she adopted an even lower perspective by using a Rollei camera, the legendary twin lens reflex which has its groundglass at the top. While this gives her vision a certain objectivity and dimension, it is no accident that the device is held over the heart, rather than the head. There is an engaging sympathy in all Lepkoff’s images, which gives us the feeling of moving among the community and participating in their work, family life, and amusements, as alien as it might seem to our electronic, sterilized present. Above all, the photographer turned her eyes towards the entire community, not only the Nearings, but the locals, who had lived in Jamaica for generations and with the Nearings—who were, admittedly, considered odd—for some eighteen years. It is clear that the way of life in Jamaica—some years before it was transformed by the enormous Stratton ski resort—had not changed since before the Great Depression, except insofar as the traditional economy and the customs it supported were dying out. Even automobiles, tractors, and the like were no more than useful, but hardly life-changing adjuncts. Lepkoff’s photographs give us an immediate sense of how the two groups co-existed.

Lepkoff’s eye is impeccable, and the Pikes Falls photographs represent strong work, but they are informal and relaxed from the encounter with the subjects and the exposure to the printing. In printing she freely cropped her 6 x 6 cm negatives, concentrating on the figures’ attitudes in space rather than a conventional print format. The confidence of her eye in her seemingly off-hand arrangement of the compositions is truly extraordinary, showing a high order of photographic art, but never standing in the way of her sharp observation of her human subjects and their surroundings. She often captured them engaged in some activity. Sometimes they were conscious of the photographer, often not. Other photographs were posed, either as domestic scenes or as portraits. There are extensive sequences of logging, a picnic and dance, and an auction, an especially telling situation in which locals and radicals intermingled. The exhibition includes some fascinating contact sheets which are not reproduced in the book, and among the prints offered for sale (see below) there are full-frame versions of some which the photographer originally cropped.

As much as Lepkoff’s photographs give us the feeling of “being there,” both the locals and most of the radicals were ordinary people, who lived their lives and passed through Pikes Falls without leaving a recognizable memory in the world at large. In them the Nearings themselves are the only recognizable faces. Greg Joly’s text, which relies on extensive oral accounts as well as newspaper files and other documents, limns these lost identities in considerable detail, although his presentation is anecdotal and relaxed, in keeping with the spirit of the photographs. Greg Joly, a writer, letterpress printer, and builder, is a long-time Nearing scholar, a board member of the The Good Life Center, who is currently at work on a definitive biography of the Nearings. He also homesteads in Jamaica, and his status as a resident has given him unique access to oral recollections as well as a unique feeling for what life was life in Pike’s Falls almost sixty years ago. Like Ms. Lepkoff, he concentrates as much on his subjects’ lives as individuals and families as on their intellectual and political backgrounds. His cast of characters range from people whose contribution to the community was primarily economic and who never wrote a word to Richard Bartlett Gregg, the distinguished social activist, student of Gandhi, director of Pendle Hill, and author of the important book, The Power of Nonviolence (1934), which inspired Martin Luther King in the 1960’s. It is characteristic of Mr. Joly’s engaging approach that he concludes with a “Coda,” in which he sums up his subjects’ lives after Pikes Falls, as well as their deaths, as if his readers were sharing in reminiscence around the fireplace.

The exhibition and the book will have a broad appeal, from lovers of photography and the state of Vermont to historians, progressives, students of the many intentional communities which have sprouted up through American history, and anyone who has benefitted from the Nearings’ work and writings—and, no matter how indirectly, there are many, whether through environmental groups, community sponsored agriculture, vegetarianism, or simply supporting locally-based producers and businesses. As fragmented as these movements are, they flourish and exert a significant counter-force to globalized production and supply. Members of present-day intentional communities will be struck by the strenuous life of Pikes Falls. Above all, since we live in a world in which the interests of mortgage holders and…not working people in the sense of laborers, but of simply people who work for a living…are mentioned in public debate as afterthoughts or as political cards that can easily be discarded, it often seems as if the political and social advances of the early twentieth century never happened, as if a whole region of political and social life had vanished—as if a part of the natural color spectrum had suddenly disappeared—it is restorative to recall the Nearings’ hardy attempt at social progress.

Vintage and contemporary digital prints from the exhibition are available for purchase from the Vermont Center for Photography, as well as hardbound ($42) and paperback ($32) copies of the publication. Contact the Center for further information: phone 802.251.6051.

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