Even in isolated Hutterite colonies on the Hi-Line, the internet has a way of causing trouble, as photographer Jill Brody found out a few years ago. She'd been visiting a colony in Liberty County, and she promised the group that nothing she photographed would appear in print without their permission. But she was in grad school at the time, and as part of her MFA requirements, she was told she should keep a blog about her work. "I'm older and I don't do blogs," says Brody, who is 69. "I don't understand that whole part of people's interest." She set up the blog and, without thinking much of it, put her pictures on the site.
A former colony member was browsing the web, found the photos and called a family member to let them know. "So I was called on the carpet," she says. "And they were right, and I apologized deeply."
Brody was told she could come back, but she felt the damage was done. The trust she'd worked to establish was gone. She moved on and visited two other colonies over the next four years, keeping in mind the lesson she learned.
Hidden In Plain Sight, Brody's current exhibit on display at the Missoula Art Museum, shows the result of that work. Her photographs detail a lifestyle that might appear anachronistic and strange to the typical American, and yet, identifiable: These are portraits of hard work, farm life, families and children. In one, "Cabbage Cutters," we see the backs of women, clothed in long dresses, mud on their shoes, off to work on a bright, summer day carrying a red bucket and sheathed knives.
Many Montanans might be casually aware of Hutterites, particularly on the Hi-Line and eastern Montana, where their colorful dress and German accents stand out at farmers markets. Hutterites are insular and often wary, as Brody found out, but with good reason.
Occasionally, outsiders have been allowed in to photograph colonies. William Albert Allard, a longtime National Geographic photographer and former Missoula resident, has worked closely with Montana colonies capturing Hutterite life over several decades.
As Brody learned, outsider visitations can backfire. The National Geographic channel's "American Colony: Meet the Hutterites" portrayed the King Colony near Sidney in a reality-TV format; colony leaders protested that the show misrepresented their lives and the show ended after only one season.
Brody wound up with the Hutterites in a roundabout way. She'd been documenting small-town ranch life in the state since the early '90s. "Somebody said to me, 'If you really want to see real, high-tech, good dryland wheat farming, you need to go look at the Hutterites.' I said, 'The who?' I had never really heard of them and nobody had mentioned them to me."
Her first visit was all it took. "Hutterite colonies are photographic Edens," she says. "You have these people that look like they come from another century, and in brightly colored clothing, blues, purples, greens and turquoises, and these polka-dotted headscarves, and I was hooked on that first afternoon in the colony."
Brody tried to take an unobtrusive approach to photographing, which she says helped make her subjects feel more comfortable. And she came to see many Hutterites as friends. Once, she remembers, one of the women told her that they regarded her as a grandmother figure. "They meant that I knew myself," Brody says. "And their whole lives are spent trying to know themselves."
Brody acknowledges the downsides to the Hutterite life that aren't necessarily captured with her lens. Diseases like cystic fibrosis are common due to a small genetic pool. Close-knit communities and defined roles can be comforting, but they can be stifling, which is why young Hutterites sometimes leave. And colonies continue to battle with which technologies to accept. Hutterites employ the best farming technologies, but personal electronics are a touchy issue. Some colonies ban use of the internet, others embrace it. (One Canadian colony runs hutterites.org, which includes FAQs and blogs.) Hutterites' faith has been strong enough to resist wars and persecution, but the web keeps knocking at the door.
Being photographed for outsiders is still a gray area for the colonies. Hutterites are shy about having photos taken, Brody says, but they appreciate the results. "I took lots and lots of pictures of children, and so I would send them like 100 photographs that they could distribute to the grandparents, parents, and keep around," she says. In that way, Hidden in Plain Sight is a collection of family portraits for the colony members. For the rest of us, it's a glimpse into a different and intriguing culture.
Jill Brody gives an artist's talk for Hidden in Plain Sight at MAM Sat., March 8, at 1 PM. Free. The exhibit runs through May 11.