Located about three miles north of Milwaukee in Westby, Wis. is the magical 14-acre Long Arm Farm. Owned and operated by filmmaker/artist-turned-farmer Micaela O’Herlihy (pictured below at right), Long Arm cultivates organic herbs and produce for a small group of popular Milwaukee restaurants. The farm can be found in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area: a stretch of land known for its deep river valleys, Amish farming population and peaceful scenery.
Recently, Milwaukee-based photographer Sara Stathas shot a personal project on the farm—a result of her desire to photograph people who made their livings outdoors and worked on the land. Sara’s photos were picked up by Milwaukee Magazine, appearing as an 8-page spread in their 2015 “Summer City Guide.” I caught up with Sara to chat a bit about the charming photo essay. Read more below!
How does this project fit your photographic style? How did you get involved?
The Long Arm Farm project embodies everything I love about making photos: an observational approach combined with intentional portrait work. Last year I focused on shooting personal projects outdoors, shooting people who worked on the land. About that time I met the filmmaker Andrew Gralton who was engaged in an ongoing documentary about the folks of Long Arm Farm, which is about three hours northwest of Milwaukee. He planned to do some additional footage and invited me to come along.
As a photographer, why do you believe your personal work is important?
Personal projects allow me to choose locations and subjects that interest me, especially those about which I’m curious. I think of this kind of work as cultural anthropology. I take on some assignments to pay the bills but don’t look down on the work or ever take it for granted. No matter now well received this work has been, however, it is not always fulfilling to me as an artist. Working on a personal project is energizing and gets me excited to do the editing, processing, and exhibiting. Showcasing this work, making it available to a wider audience, will hopefully connect me to clients of similar vision and interests.
What challenges were involved with this project? How did you overcome them?
My assignments don’t involve “talent.” My subjects have lives and work that need their attention and their time. This is an obvious consideration, for example, when shooting CEO’s. On Long Arm Farm I was exceptionally aware of “taking” time from the adults whose chores wouldn’t wait. As a result, I spent more time with the children. As I followed them around the farm they became my guides and also the subjects of many of my photos.
What was involved in the planning/preproduction?
This was an unusual shoot for me in that I DIDN’T do planning, either preproduction or image-related. Andrew, my filmmaker contact, arranged the visit with the farm’s owner, Micaela. This is Amish country, where phone and internet service can be described as “basic.” I was hesitant to show up without the usual pre-project communication, but Andrew assured me that being an artist herself, Micaela would be receptive and welcoming. As far as the photography, my personal expectations were simply to make beautiful photos, especially portraits. I imagined shooting a feature for Bon Appetit or Martha Stewart Living.
What’s been the reaction to the images?
Positive! Social media has facilitated a lot of feedback. Micaela, my most important critic, is happy with the work. Kurt Chandler, the editor of Milwaukee Magazine, and where the story is published, has added his praise for the photo essay and shared positive comments he’s received from others. Two crowd pleasers have been the goat-on-the-couch and Oota on the bridge.
Any future plans for this project?
None right now, but my goal is to find clients who would like me to do similar projects. I spent a lot of time last year documenting the people who own and work on a local orchard. I got to know them because my dad has been buying apples and other produce from their retail store for forty years. He is an avid gardener and I inherited his love of planting and tending. My maternal grandmother grew up on a farm during the Depression; her family was intimately connected to the earth. Feels like these experiences got imprinted on my DNA, and I want to explore this more in my work.
What did you learn as a result of creating this series?
To let go of expectations. To let the photos find me. I allowed myself time to discover beautiful objects and wonderful light. Then my informed intuition took over. As I often remind myself, this is a method that I can apply to diverse assignments.