Lee Klancher Tells History of Old Farm Life with Photographs

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Lee Klancher shares the history of tractors and the American farm through photography. Photo from "Red Tractors 1958-2013."
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Lee especially enjoys the raw aesthetics of early tractors like this Waterloo Boy. Photo from "The Art of the John Deere Tractor."
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The choice of perspective in this shot of a John Deere Model G gearshift draws attention to lines and shape, emphasizing details that are often lost in more traditional compositions. Photo from "The Art of the John Deere Tractor."
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Lee photographed this tractor in its native environment:  in the presence of its owner and restorer and the rest of his collection. From "Red Tractors 1958-2013."

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
.

Get the most out of your camera by reading theseBasic Photography Tips.

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