If you look at Julie Moos' photographs of African-American ladies in their wild church millinery, or high-school students standing in pairs, or her latest exhibit, featuring farmers outstanding in their field (pun intended), all her work seems pretty simple.
But that's deceptive. Her exhibits are the sort where it's wise to read the artist's statement before digging the work. Those African-American ladies worship at an Alabama church that was integral to the civil-rights struggles of the '60s. These women fought for the right to strut like peacocks, which puts their outlandish fashion choices in a new light. The high-schoolers, like most American teens, are fiercely divided into cliques, and some of them definitely do not want to stand next to the peer that Moos has chosen -- not unlike asking a brahmin to pose with a harijan (in fact, Moos' latest series of photographs featured Southern women and their housekeepers posed together).
Her series commissioned for Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (formerly the Forum for Contemporary Art) is a group of portraits of pairs of Missouri and Illinois farmers, arms at their sides, standing before their soybean fields, cows and homes. What you wouldn't know unless you were told is that these farmers all grow genetically altered crops developed by Monsanto.
"A lot of these farmers were a little nervous to be photographed, because there's been so much controversy about biotech foods," says Moos (pronounced like "most" without the t). That may explain the impassive looks on nearly all of their faces, though it might just be good old Midwestern "American Gothic" stolidity at work.
Visitors to the museum will find themselves engaged in a silent dialogue with the farmers, whose images are captured in larger-than-life prints of 71 by 92 inches. What were these people thinking when the photos were taken? What are their everyday lives like? How did these small-town folks become lightning rods for the debate over lab-engineered veggies? Are the photos a window into their lives, or do they coat their livelihoods in an artifice created for the sake of that moment? Their eyes seem to bore into those of the gallerygoer, conjuring an intensity and an invitation to larger questions.
Moos, who has worked for fashion photographers Bruce Weber and Patrick Demarchelier, says she visited 15 farms in two weeks for the project last summer. More impressive, she says, "I went by myself, I had no assistants, I had no flash, I had an old large-format camera and it was 115 degrees every day."
The photographer, Canadian by birth, now lives in Birmingham, Ala. Her inclusion in the forthcoming Whitney Biennial confirms that her star is on the rise. She probably owes her success to her ability to get behind the camera with a kind of purposeful naïveté that allows those who view her work to draw their own conclusions.
"I'm not a political activist," she says of her decision to do the Monsanto series; nor, she explains, is she trying to serve as an apologist for the controversial research of the tech giant. Purposely or not, she has managed to put a human face on a vexing ethical debate that centers on our corner of the world.