The Hutterites, a communal branch of Anabaptists, trace their origins to the 16th-century Radical Reformation in Europe. Hutterite communities in the United States today shun many of the modern conveniences and technologies available to most Americans, including photography. When photographer Laura Wilson first went out to take pictures in Montana’s Hutterite communities, she faced an uneasy welcome. “It was very difficult,” Wilson told Pasatiempo. “They were fine with me coming to say hello, pay a little visit, but they didn’t allow photography. I wasn’t going to take pictures without permission. It took me a number of visits. I only went to the colonies that were the most conservative. There are several groups that have split off because they have not wanted to follow the strict ways of the Hutterites. I was interested in those colonies that were healthy and surviving and vigorous, both economically and spiritually.”
Wilson, a former assistant to portrait photographer Richard Avedon, approaches her subjects as a photojournalist, fascinated by tradition and unusual expressions of culture. Her photographs of Hutterite communities are on exhibit at Peters Projects, in the former location of Gerald Peters’ Gallery. Her show is concurrent with an exhibit of new paintings by Suzanne Caporael.
“I would go to Montana for a week or two at a time,” said Wilson. “When I was visiting the Hutterites from 1985 to 2000, they were very much removed from the world. They were so successful in their own way of life, and because of that they kept me at arm’s length. It’s very hard to find something that hasn’t been photographed before. But right in the middle of the American West is a group of people who have never been photographed. Finally, they agreed. I always had to speak to the minister. You can imagine coming into a community of a hundred people with a camera, how much chaos that would cause.”
Wilson’s Hutterite images, shot in black and white, seem a throwback to the 19th century. Some works in the series, originally published in her book Hutterites of Montana (Yale University Press, 2000), are candid. Others are more formal. The Hutterites are farmers and ranchers who make their living selling livestock and crops to outside markets. “They have no TV, no radio, no music. But they do have advanced farm and agricultural equipment to harvest crops and milking equipment in dairy barns. Because they’re successful farmers and ranchers, they’re able to afford equipment that a single farmer might not be able to afford. That way they keep their workforce — young boys and girls — occupied.”
Hutterites migrated to North America in the 1870s, settling primarily in Canadian provinces and in the Dakotas. About 50 Hutterite communities live in Montana. During World War I, Hutterite communities were criticized for their pacifist beliefs, which they’ve held throughout their history. They also believe in the separation of church and state and regard all property as common goods. “There are three groups [descended from Anabaptists in North America]: the Amish, the Mennonites, and the Hutterites,” said Wilson. “But of the three groups, the Hutterites are the most removed from the world. They have a spiritual leader who is the minister, and he has assistants, and they have an agricultural boss, a farm boss. It’s the spiritual leader who is the head of the colony. It’s very democratic. The men are chosen to be leaders, but the women are very strong, and they’re not at all second-class citizens. It was a remarkable opportunity I had to become accepted in the community and take these pictures. I do go back, and it’s a happy experience, because I’ve known many of them from birth, and now they’re grown up and have their own families.”
A second series of images includes shots Wilson took on movie sets, a number of them from Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket (1996), a film that stars her sons Luke and Owen Wilson, and from The Darjeeling Limited (2007), which also features Owen Wilson along with Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman in a story about three brothers attempting to bond on a cross-country train excursion through India after the death of their father. Wilson’s photographs capture cast and crew during filming with a documentarian’s approach. Wilson brings out the warmth in her subjects. We see tenderness in her son’s eyes and good humor in the smiles of his Indian cast mates in her photograph Owen Wilson With Extras, “The Darjeeling Limited.” Shots of children in the Hutterite series are similarly tender and rugged at the same time.
Another body of work in the exhibit returns to the theme of a small regional society defined by custom. Each year in February, residents of Laredo, Texas, participate in the Washington’s Birthday Celebration, a festival dating back more than a century. As part of the event, young women make their debuts at a Colonial Pageant and Ball sponsored by the Society of Martha Washington. “It’s the parents presenting their daughters to the community. I think they’re generally freshmen in college at that age.”
The fanciful hoop skirts worn by the debutantes, some of which take months to make, are interesting in themselves, but Wilson is even more interested in things like how her subjects manage to move about in such garments. “The dresses are so heavy and so big in circumference that the girls can’t ride in a car or van, so they go to the cotillion in those long-distance moving vans.” One image depicts this mode of transport. Others show how numerous attendants are required to help dress the young women, whose presentation at the ball was originally intended to introduce the daughters of upper-class families to eligible bachelors.
Like the Hutterite series, the debutante photographs are candid glimpses into a world removed from the mainstream, which are shot in black and white as well. “The debutantes are also remote, and in a way removed, because border life is quite different from, say, living in Santa Fe or Dallas. It’s its own separate world, and this is a phenomenon within this world.” ◀
▼ Laura Wilson: Photographs
▼ Exhibit through Sept. 27
▼ Peters Projects, 1011 Paseo de Peralta, 505-954-5800