Danny Lyon, Cotton Pickers, Ferguson Unit, Texas, 1968

Danny Lyon (1942 – ), Cotton Pickers, Ferguson Unit, Texas, from Conversations with the Dead, 1968, gelatin silver print. Middlebury College Museum of Art. Gift of Carl W. Melcher, M.D., 1983.035. © Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos

The history of farming is a history land acquisition and use, weather patterns, and crop choices. It is also a history of backbreaking labor and the exploitation of workers. Danny Lyon reminds us of this in his photograph, Cotton Pickers, Ferguson Unit, Texas. Drawn from his series of photographs of inmates of the Texas penitentiary system made over an extended period in 1968 and 1969, this photograph calls to mind the role of slavery in the South, as repeated in the forced labor of prison gangs.

Clarence White, The Orchard, 1902, photogravure. Middlebury College Museum of Art. Purchase with funds provided by the Walter Cerf Art Fund, 2008.022.

While it is easy to idealize farm work, as Clarence White does in his photograph, The Orchard, today’s dependence on migrant laborers in Vermont orchards is just one example of the realities of farm labor.