Communal Culture

by Sarah Valdez

"Attracted to the light and spare backdrop of this remote, low desert landscape," the artist Kristin Capp moved to rural, eastern Washington state to make photographs. Her curiosity was peaked by local lore about Hutterite settlements in the region, and she followed verbal directions to a remote colony not registered on the map. She and her camera were in­stantly welcomed by a Hutterite woman by the name of Janet Walter, who served as the subject of a good many of Capp's images as well as the liaison to the notoriously insular community, known for, among other things, its wariness of outsiders. The result of Capp's encounter, Hutterite: A World of Grace, is a large volume (I31/*" x rjW) of square-formatted black-and-white photographs that intimately portrays these rarely seen people and gives a view of their way of life.

For those unfamiliar with their his-tory, the Hutterites descended from a contingent in Zurich that was persecut­ed, beginning in the early 15005, for their belief in adult, as opposed to child, bap­tism. Thousands died horrific deaths as martyrs for this cause, and, others in defense of their belief, migrated in search of freedom, mostly to Romania, Poland,Hungary and the Ukraine. In 1533, a char­ismatic and authoritarian hatter, Jakob Hutter, organized what had become adissent-ridden community of religious exiles in the Moravian town of Austerlitz. Hutter instituted the Hutterite Bruderhof, or communal farm system, which remains in effect to this day. The entire Hutterite population (then around 1,200) crossed the Atlantic to come to the U.S. between 1874 and 1879. Testament to their success­ful, self-imposed segregation, the Hutteritelingua franca remains the Austrian dialect they brought with them.

Capp does more than simply docu­ment this group of people as they are living today. She masterfully employs texture, line, light, shadow and focus to create visually pleasing images. Her tech­nical ability is accompanied by a knack for recognizing and capturing things and people symbolically evocative of tradition and community, as well as the smaller, sensual things that make the Hutterites' way of life palpable. There is some resem­blance between Capp's work and, forinstance, that done by Dorothea Lange for the Farm Security Administration documenting migrant farm workers dur­ing the mid-i93os. Although the viewer does not "know" the people and culture being looked at in any definitive sense, there are implied characters and narra­tives (usually pertaining to individual's place in the family, i.e., beautiful mother, proud grandmother, aging spinster, plucky young sons) that anyone might recognize.

Hutterite culture, being communal, also often has large quantities of the same thing in one place — a quality that Cappastutely noticed can make for strong com­positions. A pile of potatoes provides a punctuated background on which Hutterite women sit; the shiny stainless steel silver vats and counter tops of their communal kitchen function as gleaming geometric forms reflecting light for an image that functions abstractly as well as literally. Trucks in a line, a gaggle of ducks in profile, trenches of tilled earth, dead chickens in a large wagon and a load of ears of corn in a large vat are all subjects of separate compositions, each of which sensitively records the formal sense that is sometimes to be found amid the chaos of the untranslated visual world.

Another genre of photography in Capp's book is that of women working. As one can surmise from Capp's photo­graphs, there is an overarching similarity among Hutterite women: fair skin; con­servative, old-fashioned dress, generally involving an apron; and a severe, pulled-back hairstyle and complicated yet sim­ple-looking braids and twists. One such female is portrayed carrying two round cabbages, holding one in either hand as sunlight streams romantically behind her silhouette and the wind blows her skirt at a diagonal that provides balance against the horizontal horizon behind. A woman with a kerchief on her head and a plaid apron around her waist is pictured har­vesting corn, the path between the rows of corn stalks forming a solid counter­point to the hill sloping at a 45-degree angle from the upper right-hand corner of the square image. Similarly, elegantly recorded, we see a woman harvesting tomatillos; two women harvesting water­melon; a woman surrounded by loaves of bread she has baked; another squatting amid flowers in her garden.

These images bring to mind the art historian Linda Nochlin's observation that: "... nowhere is the work of ideology more evident than when issues of class join with issues of gender in the produc­tion of female imagery. In the case of thepeasant woman, the association of the rural female with a timeless, nurturing, aesthetically distancing realm of natureserve(s) to defuse her potentiality."1
There is a persistent visual romanti-cization of the Hutterites' way of life that, indeed, comes through most clearly in Capp's images of demure, hard-working, down-to-earth women. These photo­graphs, like the rest of Capp's body of work, embody nostalgia for a lifestyle unfettered by the emphasis on individ­uality and isolation from means of pro­duction that characterize contemporary capitalist culture. More than a monu­mental document or necessary historical lesson on the Hutterites, the thetic point of the photography seems to be a yearn­ing for a tradition-filled "world of grace."

There is a strange disjuncture between the photographs' aura and the accompa­nying essays written by Sieglinde Geisel and Rod Slemmons, both of which focus on Hutterite history and how remarkable it is that Capp managed to gain access totheir insular and never-before-document­ed world with her camera. Capp's work, if neither educational nor pioneering, stands on its own, and does not need the justi­fication found in the essays. The book is most likely to be appreciated by those who instinctively relate to the visual harmony of an image, the power of heritage, or the simple beauty of a fresh-scrubbed face.

Sarah Valdez is a writer living in New York City.

1. Linda Nochlin, Women, Art, and Power, Visual Theory, ed. Keith Moxey et al., Polity Press, 1991, p. 30.
Photos from top: Kristin Capp, Carol, Janet and Deborah Walter, Lamona Colony, Washington, 1994 Kristin Capp, Carol Walter, Moses Lake, Washington, 1994