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The Faces of America’s Farms


Justin Tedford uses the Tamron SP 24-700mm VC G2 and SP 70-200mm VC G2 lenses to capture portraits of farming families in the heart of Iowa.


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By Jenn Gidman
Images by Justin Tedford


Growing up in rural Iowa, Justin Tedford spent his spare time exploring the area around his grandparents’ farm in Harrison County, where he gained an appreciation for the agricultural lifestyle and the people who lived there. Today, the Cedar Rapids photographer has combined his early ties to farming and the land to his passion for taking pictures, spurred by a workshop that involved him taking portraits of two local farming families.

© Justin Tedford
24-70mm (40mm), F/7.1, 1/60th sec., ISO 320
Click image to view larger

“After that workshop, I decided to do a larger farmer-themed project to show a side of farmers you don’t usually see,” he says. “I posted on Facebook one night, asking if anyone would be interested, and when I woke up the next morning, I had all of these Facebook messages and texts expressing support for the project. I teamed up with Brenda Sandburg, who said she would do all the writing to tell the farmers’ stories, and we soon had people reaching out and asking us if we could profile a family member or friend who was a farmer.”

The two have so far photographed 10 or so farming families for the “Harvesting the Heartland: Stories of the Iowa Farmer” project, which Justin hopes to eventually turn into an exhibit, and possibly a book. To capture these farmers, Justin uses the Tamron SP 70-200mm VC G2 and SP 24-70mm VC G2 lenses. “The 24-70 has been my everyday lens for some time,” he says. “But I now love the 70-200, too, and have been using it more and more. I appreciate the compression it offers on my landscapes, as well as for the fact that I don’t have to be right on top of my subjects while creating portraits—especially for the farmers, who aren’t always terribly comfortable in front of the camera. And because I shoot all of my images handheld, the Vibration Compensation (VC) feature on both lenses is critical for my work.”

© Justin Tedford
70-200mm (200mm), F/5.0, 1/160th sec., ISO 250
Click image to view larger

Justin says he recruits his subjects through Facebook or via word of mouth, which is when he has to take on what he considers the hardest part of the project: getting the farmers to trust him, Brenda, and the project. “The families usually want to make sure this isn’t some kind of anti-farming initiative,” he says. “If the family is interested, we’ll head up to meet them, with images I’ve printed of other farming families we’ve photographed so I can pitch the project to them. We’ll bring cookies from a great bakery near us as a peace offering. Then, often with a dozen or so family members gathered around the kitchen table, we’ll talk about the farming lifestyle, the business of farming, and their family history on the land. By the time we’re done talking, we’ve established more of that rapport I need to capture authentic photos.”




A Love of the Land
And then they get to work—usually in the summer, as farmers are typically busy planting in the spring and harvesting in the fall. “After that initial interview, we’ll come back another day and have our photo session,” Justin says. “Sometimes they’ll ask if they need to wear their Sunday best, and I say no, unless a shirt and tie is what they normally wear around the farm. I want my pictures to be genuine, to show what life on the farm is really about. That’s also why I don’t pose my subjects. Instead, I’ll usually just direct them on where to stand—usually by their livestock or some tools or a tractor. They often instinctively know how to arrange themselves from there.”

© Justin Tedford
70-200mm (135mm), F/4.0, 1/100th sec., ISO 640
Click image to view larger

© Justin Tedford
70-200mm (82mm), F/5.0, 1/1250th sec., ISO 640
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Deciding whether to shoot his photos in color or in black and white depends on a variety of factors, including the lighting Justin is working with, the mood of the photo he’s trying to capture, and the personalities of the farmers. “I often just have a gut instinct,” he says. “The couple you see here in black and white just seemed to call for it. The husband was a bit more reserved than his wife. He was also still recovering from a farming accident when I photographed them—he’d just gotten his arm out of a sling. There was a roughness and coarseness from life’s experiences that seemed to point more to a black-and-white photo.”

© Justin Tedford
70-200mm (86mm), F/5.0, 1/400th sec., ISO 8000
Click image to view larger

Being flexible, spontaneous, and willing to push for just one or two more photos at the end of the session can also pay off big time. “The couple you see here in the baseball caps loved to tell the story about how their daughter had gotten married in one of their fields,” he says. “They would laugh as they recollected how they’d had to rope it off so the cows wouldn’t poop in it before the wedding.”

© Justin Tedford
70-200mm (170mm), F/4.0, 1/500th sec., ISO 250
Click image to view larger

Even though Justin doesn’t like to force his subjects into too long of a session, he asked this couple, after all of the other pictures were done, if he could photograph them in the field where their daughter got married. “It would be a portrait that actually meant something to them as a family,” he says. “They were tired, but they said, ‘Sure, let’s go.’ When we got to the field, the sun was just starting to set, and the field was bathed in this beautiful golden light. As I fiddled around with my camera, the two of them just stared off at their cows in the distance, and when I looked up and saw that scene, I knew that was the shot I needed to get.”

© Justin Tedford
70-200mm (135mm), F/4.0, 1/500th sec., ISO 250
Click image to view larger

Justin’s photos have struck a chord with viewers, and he’s been grateful for the response. “I don’t know if people truly realize how passionate I am about this project,” he says. “Someone will say to me, ‘So, you take pictures of farmers.’ And I’ll reply, ‘Oh no. It’s much more than that. Do you have an hour? Let me explain what this means to me.’ These guys are out there fighting every day for their farms, and I love being able to capture that spirit through my images.”

To see more work by Justin Tedford, go to www.tedfordphoto.com.






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