After running a few ideas past my tutor for Assignment 5, he suggested I take a look at Vanessa Püntener’s work, specifically her work on the Alpine farmers in Austria, as there were some similarities to what I was planning. Her work shows the people working and living on the mountains, which is fast becoming a thing of the past. Their way of life is at risk of disappearing altogether. A very similar situation to my project.
I first looked at Püntener’s Alp series. The first image in the series immediately provides the context for the narrative – the mountain. She then follows this with a portrait of a young boy in the cowshed who looks like he is sitting on the rump of a cow, surely a sign of the relationship between man and beast. We are then taken into the little kitchen with its two stoves with firewood piled high next to them, makeshift shelving around the walls and colourful wall and ceiling decorations, made of a variety of materials, such as plastic and wall paper. I would imagine these have been put up to stop any drafts getting into the house. Even though the kitchen is almost like a patchwork quilt, one can see the farmer’s wife pride – her pots are spotless and gleaming as is the rest of her kitchen. One gets the sense that everything has its proper place.
The next image is vertical wide angle shot of the family herding the cattle back up the mountain. The mountain is shrouded in a mist but the farmhouse is faintly visible in the distance. One gets the impression that this a task in which the whole family takes part regularly. A portrait of one of the children and the dog are next in sequence, followed by a view of the rugged terrain of the alps. A beautiful chiaroscuro image of a cow resting in its stall follows. The muted brown shades of the cow blend into the surrounding walls while the light coming in through the stable door illuminates her face and the straw on the ground in front of her. This is followed by another photograph of the alps with the clouds coming in over their peaks.
The remains of simple meal consisting of cold meats, bread and cheese provide the details of the family’s simple way of life. The table is economically laid on a wooden table with only the platters, knives mugs and jugs visible. No crockery except for the mugs are visible. This leaves the impression that it is a quick meal, eaten on the run, so to speak. The image of the farmer’s built in bed reminds me so much of the beds found in the old Dutch village of Marken, where these were built into the walls, bunk-style to maximize space in these little one room houses. Layers of muslin cloth hang over the side of the bed. One wonders if they are there for privacy reasons, or just a convenient space to hang the cheesecloths that are used for making cheese?
The last few images in the series show us evidence of some “mod-cons” that have reached the Alpine community. An old fashioned wall telephone hangs proudly next to family and wedding photos. A plug’s cord cuts diagonally across the one wedding photo providing evidence of electricity on site. Püntener finishes the online series with two photos of the community in the throes of a severe winter. One of the farmers poses for his portrait outside his farmhouse, while the snow sits at least 3 foot high on his roof. The final image is a shot of the farming community/village taken from a fair distance down the mountainside. Only the brick red and grey walls of their houses poke out of the snow, reminding us of the isolation and hardships this little community has to endure.
For the most part Püntener uses muted colours for her images in this series (I can only speak for the online images because according to my tutor she made a book on this subject). One might regard the images where there green grass of the alps is visible as bright, but I don’t think so. While the colour saturation might be more intense than in the other images, the atmosphere of the images remains muted. One gets the sense of the mist descending to wash out any available colour.
In her Sbrinz series, Püntener documents the life of a single family. She begins the online series with a couple of very endearing images of two little girls and their donkey. My favourite image has to be the one where there little girl is inspecting the donkey’s teeth and the donkey is standing oh so patiently. We then see the little girls at play outdoors, and in the evening dressed up in fancy dress clothes posing for the camera.
An early morning view of the moutains seen between the house and the cowshed follows. Püntener then turns her attention to the farming story in essence following the journey of the milk through the manufacturing process and opens with an action shot of a farmer pouring fresh milk into milkcans starts the day off. A close-up shot of the farmer sitting on his milking stool provides some variety in the narration. This is followed by a detail shot of the milking apparatus that is used. Separating the curds from the whey provides the context that this is a cheese manufacturing farmer. I’m really intrigued by the image with the upside down milkcans standing on a bench outside a little hut. I seen more milkcans just to the left of the hut’s door, so must assume that this is some kind of collection or drop-off venue for empty milkcans. The red bench and jacket on the bike provide a wonderful punch to the muted tones of the scene.
The next detail shot is one of two wedges of cheese. The texture of the roughly cut cheese is visible lit by the light coming through the door. Possibly the hut in the previous image is where the rounds of cheese are left to age. Püntener comes full circle and for her penultimate photo does a group portrait of the family standing outside the milking shed. The final photo is one of the mudroom in their home, where the family’s jackets, boots and outdoor shoes are left together with the broom to sweep up the mud. The end of another day, signified by the closed door.
As in the Alp series, Püntener has again used fairly muted tones in this series. She has paced her narrative well, introducing the audience to the characters (children) slowly and then launched into the busyness of the daily tasks of dairy farming and gearing back on the pace once we see the finished product. Only then does she reveal the whole family to the audience.
I feel that the Sbrinz series reads better as a narrative essay than the Alp series. Perhaps that is only due to the limited selection of images that Püntener has on her website, but I felt that there were bits missing from the Alp series that I would have like to see more of. Nonetheless, I think I have some good ideas on how to proceed with my Assignment 5 and will try and incorporate some of Püntener’s ideas.
Vanessa Püntener [online]. Available from http://www.vanessapuentener.ch/index.php?section=2 [Accessed 14 March, 2015]