Lee Klancher Tells History of Old Farm Life with Photographs

Photographer Lee Klancher has built a career on photographing tractors and old iron equipment.

Farmall

Lee Klancher shares the history of tractors and the American farm through photography. Photo from "Red Tractors 1958-2013."

Photo By Lee Klancher

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There are lots of ways to participate in the old iron community — some people collect, some focus on research, and some help others show their collections. Maybe they sell spare parts or restoration services, or maybe they spend their time organizing shows and events. For Austin, Texas, resident Lee Klancher, the best of old iron is seen through a camera lens.

A professional photographer and author for 20 years, Lee didn’t set out to photograph tractors — his primary interest (photography-wise) is the natural world, especially landscapes with dramatic lighting. But in the mid-1990s he was approached by Motorbooks International publishing company to write a book on Farmalls. More than a decade after Farmall Tractors was published, Motorbooks again contacted him — this time to shoot the 2005 Farmall calendar, a project that pushed him to expand on his photography skills. Lee now produces the calendar through his own publishing company, Octane Press.

Today Lee says he enjoys shooting and writing about tractors because of their sense of history and their significant role in the evolution of industrial design. He’s written several books about John Deere and Case IH tractors, and his fascination with motivated, creative and passionate people meshes well with the old iron community. “People who do amazing things really get me going,” he says.

Captured by design

When Lee wrote International Harvester: Photographic History in 1996 he was caught by the innovation in turn-of-the-20th-century tractors, created by trial and error and fueled by the idea that the future of the farm must be mechanized. “It was an incredibly creative time,” Lee says. “That period is just fascinating.” In the introduction to the new edition of the book he calls the early machines “remarkable in both their quality and sheer crudity of construction. The fact that they worked at all is just as amazing as the thought that farmers could actually get anything done with these crude pieces of equipment.”

While shooting for The Art of the John Deere Tractor, published in 2011, Lee staged the photos against a plain white background to capture the design approach used for each tractor. “(That book) was about aesthetics,” Lee says. “If you take out the context (of the farm), what you have left is the essence of the machine.” That approach resulted in photos where simple fuel lines are presented as works of art — even Lee himself was surprised by how elegant the tractors were in such a stark environment. “The Waterloo Boy is beautiful,” Lee says. The utilitarian lines mark it as a machine designed for work, not comfort, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “As a photographer, the raw mechanical machines like the Waterloo Boy are more appealing (than later machines),” Lee says. “I feel like I’m peering into a window of time, like I can see what the engineers were trying to do. I like raw, roughly finished steel, exposed valve trains, and the gorgeous copper carburetors and waterline fittings.”  

As the industry moved into the 1940s and ’50s, industrial designers like Henry Dreyfuss and Raymond Loewy began a trend toward streamlining and more human-centered engineering. The design transition from bare, utilitarian and experimental machines to a tool that could be both beautiful and hard-working is one that Lee finds compelling in his photography. “You can see the designer’s hand in the later machines,” he says. “The curves are functional.”

Curved dashes gave the operator a better view of the ground, improving both the farmer’s efficiency and his overall experience with the tractor. “Look at a 3010 John Deere and you can see how the sightlines have improved dramatically due to the curves,” Lee notes. “Look at the Case second-generation Magnum tractors, and you see that Gregg Montgomery took that to another level. The hood curves so much the operator’s view to the ground is unobstructed.”

Photography on the road

For the perfect photo to illustrate a point in farm equipment history, Lee works with collectors, clubs, and fellow writers and photographers. Locating a specific tractor, confirming its condition and scheduling shoots is only the beginning; for his newest book, Red Tractors 1958–2013: The Official Guide to International Harvester and Case-IH Tractors in the Modern Era (on sale July 2013), Lee photographed 60 tractors in a hectic nine-day tour designed for maximum opportunities at the greatest possible efficiency. Lee says most of his shoots are planned to one extent or another. “Those are the most rewarding, because it makes [the result] something really special. But I always find something I didn’t anticipate.” And it’s not as simple as showing up with a digital camera — Lee travels with six bags of equipment and says he’s spent as much as three weeks packing.

The mechanics of the job add their own complications. “The most common problems I run into photography-wise are light and finding the right setting,” Lee says. If he can, he prefers to dedicate a day or two to scouting out potential locations and then return with his subject around dawn or sunset, when natural light is at its best. Unfortunately, that light often plays havoc with old iron paint colors and almost inevitably casts interesting details into shadow. But if you can work with it or compensate for it, Lee insists that natural light is nearly always the best choice; it’s often the defining characteristic of his best shots.

Good light and old iron

Tractor in the Pasture, published in 2009, is easily Lee’s favorite of his tractor books. The product of four years’ work wandering back roads on three continents and in 35 states, the book features nostalgic images of old tractors left to the ravages of nature. In the preface Lee wrote, “I discovered that an old tractor resting in a fencerow has a forlorn allure. I wondered about the people who had used this old tractor. What was their life like when that tractor was new? Why was the tractor abandoned to the elements? If machines could talk, old tractors could take us back to a time most of us can only imagine.” It’s a book about American landscapes and the history of the American farm as much as tractors, and the blend of nature and machine gives it an almost comforting sense of balance. “It’s full of good light on weathered iron,” Lee says. “It’s got a look I just love.”

Generally, Lee is drawn to unrestored pieces because of their immediate historical connection. “Original condition machines communicate more powerfully,” he says. “When you see rusted metal and cracked rubber coatings, you understand that a lot of time has passed since the machine was built. I like to get a sense of time from the machine.” For unrestored pieces, Lee uses a higher contrast to bring out the weathering and patchy paint, emphasizing the tractor’s working life, and tries to find simple backgrounds that make the tractor stand out. If a tractor is fully restored and looks factory-fresh, Lee experiments with other ways to convey a sense of the past — often with aged or beat-up backgrounds to offset the shiny finish of a fresh coat of paint.

The experience that Lee gained while working on Tractor in the Pasture still influences his photography today, although his approach to the category is different now. “That book was about nostalgia,” Lee says. “The past I grew up with is almost gone, but there’s a new interest in farms and farming that seems to be driven by the idea that that era was more authentic than this one.” Now, instead of simple images of a time passed by, Lee tries to capture the ethic of that time while conveying a larger sense of a subject’s background and circumstances. One image he felt was particularly successful meshes a tractor seamlessly with its context — while photographing the tractors of a man who did all his own restorations, Lee took a shot of him seated at his workbench, surrounded by his collection and the tools he used to work on the machines he loved. In that photo (in the Image Gallery), the tractor itself is more of a testament to his passion than a centerpiece.

“It’s been a long process trying to get to photos that tell a story,” Lee says. But when it results in images like these, the effort is well worth it. FC  

Lauren Holt is the editorial assistant for Farm Collector and Gas Engine Magazine; she enjoys practicing amateur photography at old iron shows. Contact her at lholt@ogdenpubs.com.

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