To even begin understanding a landscape, you must also consider its natural history – specifically, the plants, animals and above all the people who live upon and from it. Divorced from any sense of the natural and human forces which went into its making, a landscape photo is nothing more than a sometimes pretty picture postcard. Teresa Kaufman, an American photographer, has lived in the French Alps since 1976, and knows the valleys and high pastures around Chamonix as only a year-round resident and walker could. In 2007 a regional publisher, La Fontaine de Siloé, published an astonishing collection of black and white photographs by Kaufman under the title Thérèse et ses deux fréres (Thérèse and her Two Brothers). The photos, backed by a minimal text, illustrate the life of what must be one of the very last families of full-time subsistence farmers in the European Alps.
Thérèse Thissot and her two elderly bachelor brothers live in the Faucigny region, wintering on the sunny slopes of La Côte-d’Arbroz and summering in the high pastures of the valley of Combafou. In 1446, sixteen families acquired the rights to settle in Combafou from the Carthusian monks of Bellevaux. Towards the end of the 19th century, ten families still made the annual trek with their cattle, including cows, goats, pigs, rabbits and chickens. These days, the Thissot family are the last to maintain an alpage chalet at Foron; the rest are slowly decaying. When, in time, Thérèse and her brothers pass on, or give up a way of life which they love for something perhaps easier, the landscape will change once again; at this moment, it is still marked and defined by the presence over the centuries of farmers like the Thissots and their beasts, by their paths and settlements, their pasturage and clearances. Above all, in a very tangible way, by their presence in the landscape.
Teresa Kaufman’s photographs, evidence of an intimacy which somehow, delicately, avoids thrusting itself on either its subjects or their viewer, remind me in their obvious honesty of Jean Mohr’s in A Fortunate Man, his collaboration with John Berger. Berger opened that book with the following lines: “Landscapes can be deceptive. Sometimes a landscape seems to be less a setting for the life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles, achievements and accidents take place. For those who, with the inhabitants, are behind the curtain, landmarks are no longer only geographic but also biographical and personal”.
Teresa Kaufman, Thérèse et ses deux fréres, La Fontaine de Siloé, Montmélian 2007. ISBN 978 2 84206 349 8.