Old hands

Disappearing World: The photographs of Tessa Traeger celebrate traditions of the French peasantry which are vanishing because of modern farming. John Windsor reports

The peasants living in the mountainous Ardeche region of southern France are holding on to a way of life that is ruled by nature: their hands bear, quite literally, the marks of passing seasons.

Marthe Charles is 75 years old. The wind dries her round white goat cheeses, rocking them in cradles of silvery chestnut wood, bound with briar, filled with straw, and hung from the beams of her farmhouse. But when she dies, the cradles will be burned and the cheese from her goats dried instead in stainless steel cabinets, heated by electricity and inspected by men with clipboards driving in from cities she has seldom visited.

She has seen the men already. They inspect the cheese factory of her neighbour's son. If he asked them for a licence to dry cheese in the wind, they would laugh politely. There are no new licences for old ways. The European Union has said so.

It is as if "license not renewable" has been stamped upon the ageing peasants themselves. So they sit on their old milking chairs, nursing home-made loaves or sausages - while they are still legal. Farmhouses lie empty: the more restless youngsters have moved to big cities such as Marseilles. Tessa Traeger, the veteran Vogue photographer who took these prizewinning photographs, imagines them working all hours in neon-lit milk bars. They have forsaken the rural routines - leading the cows out to graze for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening, joining the family at table at 12 noon precisely for pot au feu, which is ladled from a cast-iron cauldron, and back again for soupe at dusk.

Traeger says: "The old people who remain are distressed and outraged. They love making their food and they love eating it. The couronne loaves, the jambonettes of minced ham sewn up in pigskin, remind me of pieces of sculpture. And those stalks of garlic sewn together in pairs are an inescapable fertility symbol. Making them is a form of self-expression.

"These are solemn, religious people who take living seriously and are very good at it. I have immense respect for them. But the French authorities are showing an appalling lack of respect. In Japan, they would be living national treasures."

Since Traeger began visiting the Ardeche three years ago, she has become a familiar figure, with her big-plate camera and tripod, her bucket of sodium sulphite to clear negatives, a magnifier round her neck - and her headband, smock and arty linen waistcoat.

She was introduced to the village of St Agreve - on the Auvergne border, beside the river Loire - by Paul Boucher, a friend, half-French and recently settled there, who asked her to record the local patrimoine and exhibit her photographs at his annual arts festival.

Marie-Jeanne Sinz, daughter of a local cheese merchant and the festival's co-organiser, escorted her to meet the peasant farmers, the butcher, the baker, the bee-keeper, the cheese-maker, the taxidermist. These were formal introductions: Traeger had no camera with her. At first she found the dialect - the hard "a's" - hard to pronounce. "But they saw the point of the exercise right from the start," she says, "they know their way of life is disappearing."

Returning to their homes to photograph them, she learned some of the secrets of peasant life. "When you spend half a day photographing somebody," she says, "a great intimacy is established."

The taxidermist, she discovered, was also a poacher whose favourite delicacy was magpie fledglings taken from the nest. He taught her to catch trout by tickling - "it really works". A bachelor farmer living with his brother could still make traditional gerbes de mariage - decorative sheaves of straw that are set alight for couples to jump over at their wedding ceremony. He makes fewer these days: so many marriageable young women have gone to Marseilles.

The bee-keeper, she found, slept in the room next door to his mule, cows, sheep, goats and ducks. "There seemed to be a symbiotic quality in the relationship between the people and their animals. They need each other. The people cherish the animals - and finally they eat them. There is a moment when your friend becomes your lunch. At that point you cut off your emotions and long to eat the meat. I have no difficulty with that. The animals have a happy life. Because of this, surely, the food must be better for you.

"I think of that whenever I see sandwiches being bought at a petrol station, like fuel. There's nothing spiritual about that. It is this emotional relationship between the people, their animals and their food that has given these photographs their depth. The farmer's wife holding the two hen's eggs, for example. They look as if they are coming out of her own body. I look for that kind of symbolism. My photographs are not happy accidents. They're the result of 30 years' learning." It was Traeger who gave the farmer with huge hands a pumpkin to hold; afterwards, he made it into soup.

Characteristic of these sombre, gold-toned prints are their points of high focus. Her camera makes on-the-spot 5in by 4in Polaroid prints, which enable her to see where its flat plane of focus lies, and adjust it by moving the camera. She closely supervises the darkroom processing of each print: no two are the same.

She does not believe in limiting editions. To her, that is a throwback to the days of engraving, when metal plates gave increasingly fainter impressions. "My editions will stop when I die," she says. But even her giant onion photograph - taken in Devon, the inspiration for the Ardeche series - exists in only 20 prints.

The Hoppen Gallery, which is about to exhibit these pictures, offered a print of it at Christie's last year, where another gallery paid pounds 650 and sold it on for pounds 850. The Hoppen Gallery's price is pounds 600. "Some people don't realise that some photographers are still alive and kicking," Traeger says.

Tessa Traeger's Ardeche photographs, which were awarded a silver in the Association of Photographers 14th Awards in February, are on show at the Michael Hoppen Gallery, 3 Jubilee Place, Chelsea, London SW3, 24 April- 31 May 1997 (0171-352 3649)

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