Lee Klancher Tells History of Old Farm Life with Photographs

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


| June 2013



Farmall

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

Photo By Lee Klancher

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.”