Dairy Character (Saint Lucy Books, 2021) is a book through which Odette England seeks to unpack the tangles of femininity, labour, childhood, love and home. Much of the book is concerned with England’s formative experiences: observing and participating in the work of a dairy farm; learning what being a woman on the farm could mean; and growing dissatisfied at the status quo of Australian farming. Complicating these threads is also the pervasive feeling that England still loves her family and feels, in some ways, proud and nostalgic while also let down. This confusion is anchored in the photographic language, which reflects both the intimacy, distance and complexity of growing up loved but not in love with how you grew up.
Key to the story England tells through this book are the specific use of different types of images. Alongside black and white portraits and landscapes that feel very contemporary, there are a variety of older photographs, including family photos, images from public archives and repurposed images. Similarly, there are photographs of cows, cropped in to the point that the dot matrix is all that is really able to be seen. These distinct visual approaches are woven in and out of the book, sometimes even on the same page. It is a deft and complex form of visual storytelling that allows England to tackle multi-faceted subjects, in particular the world of women in this space.
The first, and sometimes foremost, type of women on the farm are ‘the Girls’ – the dairy cows that the men care for, look after, document and obsess over. Cows are often quite obscured in this work, photographs re-printed to the point of becoming only dots. This strategy perhaps demonstrates that the cows, and the way that the cows are talked about, represented and cared for feels objectifying. In a way, these images (and the text about men’s care for the Girls) suggests that the way cows are treated leads, in some ways, to a habitual patronisation of women, though one still imbued with respect and warmth. After all, why would someone take so many photos of something they didn’t love, at least a little bit?
Second, there are the women, mainly England’s mother in this case: defined by the kitchen and cooking. Rarely pictured but often present, her mother is mainly shown through the substantial writing in the book – her phone manner, her jam sponge, her perfect tea making. There is the sense of both something back-breakingly traditional and achingly loved in the way England’s work incorporates this singular woman. Visually, though, the audience learns that this woman often took photographs, and some of the images that look like they are taken from family albums also seem like they could be hers.
Finally, there are girls – young women, not cows. This is perhaps the through-line of the book, as the photographs and text circle the experience of being a girl – defined social codes becoming ever more suffocating, yet still retaining a sense of freedom and participation in labour of the farm. It seems that a girl’s perspective has feet in different camps of the farm and can see what’s going on and what’s ahead. The images of girls are my favourite in the book – there’s a real exploration of complex and intimate portraits. Facial expressions are the subject of some photographs, posture is another – there’s a specific treatment of scale and form that is executed really strongly in these images. Early in the book, for example, an image of a girl shielding her face from the sun just holds that feeling of trying to stop or hide from something larger than oneself.
This book is challenging to me, and I think challenging in general, because of the way it observes the contradictions of being female in this environment. An example of this is young Odette’s desire to paint her room, but is restrained by her father’s sensibilities – the colours mentioned are returned to again and again and the narrative expresses sa desire for something outside of what’s allowed. Yet, rather than casting Dad as an ogre, there is a palpable sense of love and appreciation. This is because the work is situated inside of, more than anything, a family. England collapses the distance between time (now and then), between animal and land, between individuals, but more than that she allows the way a family unit collapses the distance between each member to play out on the page. Where one person starts and the other ends is not always clear. Are the images of England, her brother or her daughter? Are they new or old photographs? Is this a cow, a dog or a calf? Are we home or away? Visually, there is a very deliberate blending of these things to show how the lines between people blur in these units.
England has, I think, allowed this messy merging to play out in the broader themes of the work. What is it like being a girl observing women? Messy. What is it like being a woman observing your past? Nostalgic, but also claustrophobic. There is much out-dated thinking modelled in the adults shown in the book, but so little criticism or resentment. The work feels like a breakup song – sadness, distance, but still real feelings of warmth and respect. This is what makes this a strong book: that these contradictions are not simplified, nor allowed to be easily considered, just as the images themselves are chosen to collapse the space between things, so too does the book as a whole collapse the division between love and inadequacy. England never goes so far as to condemn the past, but also does not appear quite willing to take it on its terms, it all happened but it’s not quite good enough.