Vintage HandPicked: Francesco Mastalia’s Photographic Odyssey

Craig McCord

Craig McCord › Craig possesses 23 guitars and cannot play any of them. He likes fresh grilled sardines with a ...

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Editor’s Note: We thought this would be a good time to reprise Francesco Mastalia’s story of his incredible photography–because for those of you lucky enough to be in the Hudson Valley (or for those who might want to travel here), his luminous prints will be exhibited starting this weekend (April 12) at the Moviehouse in Millerton, New York. Information about the show is available here. This is an exceptional collection of real food personalities captured as you have never seen before. Read our interview with Francesco below.

Francesco Mastalia has been on a photographic odyssey.

When he opened the clamshell box to reveal his wonderful, vibrant prints I immediately knew I was in the presence of an amazing collection of photographs.

Mr. Mastalia has gone about documenting over one hundred farmers and chefs of the Hudson Valley. That alone is a tremendous achievement, but from there he takes it to another level.

He never even considered using current digital technology. He had a much bigger idea.

Francesco explains:

The portraits of the farmers and chefs were photographed using the wet plate collodion process, a technique developed in the mid-19th century when the art of photography was in its infancy. The amber toned images remind us of a time when the cultivation of land was a manual process that linked the farmer directly to the soil.

Francesco did not choose this technique arbitrarily.

If some of the farming in the Hudson Valley can be described as ‘back to basics’, so can these images. The method with which they were captured reminds one of Mathew Brady’s Civil War-era photographs or Eugène Atget’s Parisan images.

These pictures somehow capture more than just portraits of farmers and chefs–these images show the subjects’ intensity. It’s as if we can see the ratification of their commitment to real food in their eyes, their attitudes and their locations.

(As a quick aside, if you’ve visited HandPicked Nation before, perhaps you recognize the master of the baby salad greens, Chris Regan of Sky Farm.)

To learn the story behind this fascinating series, I recently spoke with Francesco about his motivation to produce these photos and from where he found the passion for his subjects.

HandPicked Nation: Let’s start at the beginning. What inspired you to produce this amazing portfolio?

Francesco Mastalia: I have always been an advocate of eating well. It was when I moved to the Hudson Valley and started meeting and talking to the organic farmers at the farmers markets–they inspired me. Farmers have great faces to photograph and they love to tell stories and talk about what they do. I just connected with them and it grew from there.

HPN: Your project is titled “ORGANIC”. You take on the definition of that word as do the folks in front of your camera. What did you learn about “organic”?

FM: Well, organic doesn’t always mean what you think it means. It really depends on who you are talking to. In 2002 the federal government took over the Organic Certification Program and redefined the word; and many of the farmers here felt it did not reflect their interests. Instead it was designed to allow larger corporations to get into the organic market. Organic was redefined to the point where a number of farmers dropped their certification because it did not meet their standards of what organic should mean.

They all possess a deep commitment and respect for the food and the planet.

HPN: Your choice to employ old photographic methods ties perfectly with the subject matter. Can you talk about that?

FM: The wet plate collodion process dates back to 1851. That was a time when all our food was organic. In fact, in 1850 80% of Americans lived on farms and farmers made up 64% of our work force. Today that number is less than 1%.

HPN: This is an amazing group of people you’ve photographed. Are there common denominators with all these folks?

FM: Oh yeah, it’s the passion they have for what they do. They all possess a deep commitment and respect for the food, and the planet. Their passion was very inspiring to me.

HPN: The Hudson Valley is a perfect venue for this project. Tell us about locating the right people with the right stories.

FM: It started by asking some of the organic farmers at the farmers market in Warwick where I live, and it took off from there. One person would tell me about another, and so on. I got taken on a journey. To date I have logged in over 14,000 miles of driving just in the Hudson Valley. There are still so many more people that I would like to photograph and interview. It’s a much larger community then I imagined.

HPN: This is a very powerful body of work. You’re showing the greatness of the Hudson Valley.

FM: The Hudson Valley is an exciting place to be. The food scene here is just incredible. There are amazing people either growing, producing, cooking, and of course eating, really great food. But the big picture here is about our health, and the health of our planet; and there are a lot of people in the Hudson Valley very committed to that cause.

HPN: Thank you for speaking with us today. We really appreciate it.

FM: You’re very welcome. Thank you.

Have you ever been to the Hudson Valley and experienced its food scene? Tell us your story.

Photo credit: Susan Baker