Hubbard’s close-ups on ‘old-time Vermonters’ on view at Folklife Center
For nearly 50 years, Ethan Hubbard drove the back roads of rural Vermont in search of old-time Vermonters. A new exhibition at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury, “Driving the Back Roads: In Search of Old-Time Vermonters,” is a retrospective of Hubbard’s documentary work and his life living alongside the people of north central Vermont.
In 1964 Hubbard began photographing and tape recording the most intriguing rural Vermonters he could find. “From the very start of my living and working in the Green Mountain State, I have pondered the virtues of men and women born and raised in Vermont, especially those who trace their families back eight or 10 generations and who proudly state, ‘I’m a native Vermonter, my people came to these lands in the 1770s and stayed,’” Hubbard writes.
The exhibition showcases more than 40 of Hubbard’s large-format black and white photographic portraits — drawn from some 600 rolls of film that he shot across five decades. Audio excerpts chosen from 125 of Hubbard’s tape recordings and interviews are presented as well — in some instances paired with a portrait of the speaker, while others play as ambient sounds filling gallery spaces with thick accents, laughter, and at times, gentle, intimate conversations.
In barns and fields, from forest walks to kitchen tables, Hubbard’s photographic portraits and audio recordings transport the viewer to rural Vermont and to the moments he shared with the people he met there.
“What might consensus say is the commonality of these people?” Hubbard asks. “What attributes were acquired from each generation and passed on? What have their eyes and ears and hearts retained from knowing the sky, the rising and setting of the moon over the same mountain for a lifetime, a neighbor’s gift of a cord of wood? What has our hauntingly beautiful landscape etched in the psyche?”
“The notion of documentarian as objective observer is a dangerous illusion,” explained Ned Castle, Director of the Vision and Voice Gallery at the Folklife Center. “Ethan’s colorful storytelling gives us personality and relationship in place of objectivity. As a result, Ethan gives us perhaps a more honest picture of these people through the unapologetic vantage of his direct experiences among them.”
“I love Vermont’s past, I love Vermont at the present, and I look forward to what the future brings to us here in these Green Mountains,” Hubbard writes. “There are generations of Vermonters still to come and they carry the seeds of what matters most: family, community and tradition. The light in the mountains cannot be extinguished. It’s been lit too long.”
An opening reception will be held this evening, Thursday, Sept. 28, from 5-7p.m., at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury. Complementary, locally sourced food and drink, including beer, wine, craft cheeses, produce, and more will be served. A Q&A session with the artist will begin at 6 p.m. The exhibit will be on view through Jan. 6.
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