In the course of preparing the documentary book
Fruit Tramps: A Family of
Migrant Farmworkers, writer and photographer Herman LeRoy
Emmet spent nine
years off and on with the Tindals, a family of migrant fruit pickers. Riding
along with Luther and Linda Tindal and their children to Florida, the
Carolinas, and upstate New York, Emmet experienced the same hardships and
privations as his subjects. The family accepted his presence, Emmet writes
in Fruit Tramps, "only on the condition that I work with them in the fields
and be able to tell their story 'true blue.'" Reviewing Fruit Tramps in the
New York Times Book Review, Judith Mara Gutman felt that, with the Tindals,
"vagaries of a life barely known to most of us reverberate with a
satisfaction and even a love that only intensifies under stress."
According to Emmet, Luther is a fruit tramp because he chooses to be. Although the Tindals only earned a total of thirteen hundred dollars (and five hundred dollars in food stamps) in 1983, he is satisfied. "I like the freedom. I choose the life," Luther states. Emmet compliments the prose - short sketches drawn from notebooks he kept - with intimate photographs that are, as Gutman observed in the New York Times Book Review, "integral to the story, words bringing readers to a scene, photographs taking us right in." Gutman was impressed by this technique, linking Emmet's verbal description of Linda Tindal washing her hair in a canal and a photograph that appears later in the book of five-year-old Tina Tindal "ambling along" the canal bank toward her mother. "Text and photograph fix the triumph," Gutman declared. In the Chicago Tribune, James Kaufmann also praised Emmet's skill with both word and image: "He never condescends, he just keeps looking deep into the Tindal's lives." Kaufmann went on to compare Emmet to other esteemed photographers that have documented rural American lifestyles. "Herman LeRoy Emmet would have felt right at home with Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange," the critic wrote. "Fruit Tramps is documentary photography at its absolute moving best."
Emmet told Contemporary Authors: "On a cold mountain morning long ago, far up a slippery dirt Hogrock Road in Edneyville, North Carolina, I walked into the Tindal's lives with a handshake and an introduction. From that moment on, we were off and running, chasing the harvest and the almighty dollar the best we knew, and for a long time, Fruit Tramps: A Family of Migrant Farmworkers, had begun.
Across a field of beans one day, I watched the Tindal family through my lens, stooping and picking, two adults and three kids, an old genetic pool of mule-driving Southerners whose history stretched far back over the decades to the Midwestern Dustbowl of the 1930s and the Southern plantations of King Cotton. They looked like John Steinbeck characters: white, haggard, and scrappy, like ghosts from fifty years ago, side by side with newer, tropical, and darker men.
Life magazine encouraged me to pursue my idea of documenting a white migrant family, and to tell the story in seven pictures. That was 1979, and years later, when I was ready, they ran the story, in seven pictures. The impact on the Tindal's life was immediate, but fleeting. In 1988, Pelion, South Carolina, an old, rural, neighborly town which prides itself on homegrown peanuts, woke up on a December morning to see one of their own dirt poor on the pages of Life. As the Tindals relate, a large truck appeared unheralded at their backwoods trailer door with food, toys, clothing and books. For an instant the family became nationally known, visible and joined to the hip of humanity. Letters of concern came pouring in to the Tindals, with daughter Tina Michelle answering every one of them. But magazine articles do not endure. Like Miss Americas, they pass into the public panarama and are soon forgotten.
Early into the project, I had a hunch that I'd better push for a book, to pipe the story of the Tindals and their kind a place in the literary long-term landscape. Together we would create a permanent voice, a lasting image, one their grandchildren would show other Americans, saying 'this is our people.' The method I used was to live and travel with the Tindal family, working along side them in cabbage fields, citrus groves, apple orchards, finding pictures in their rhythm and pace. I'd often keep my camera in the standard migrant picksack along with the fruit, slung around my shoulders.
On becoming a fruit tramp, by crossing over the line as an educated professional to the Tindal's life, I discovered an old, tattered, agricultural labor force operating on the edge of our society, occupational gypsies largely invisible to the general public. An extended voyage with them along back country roads gave me an insider's wealth of experience to report authoritatively with images and text. But life on the edge came with cost. Beside sharing physical and psychological hardship, I was ridiculed by people and harassed by police for looking like a 'white trash' field hand. My journey, from privilege to pariah, was complete.
I turned into a pretty good picker, according to the family, and was cursed at only once by a bossman up near Canada when I dropped fruit down into a deep picksack instead of lowering it gently. 'These here apples,' he said, 'ain't no oranges.'
Pictures and words grew from the inside-out, from tramping and stooping in the fields, sleeping in jalopies and toolsheds, and living in tents and converted pigsties. At night and in quiet moments, I wrote. The editors at Life wanted to know the 'who, what, when, where and how,' and I obliged them by writing captions on the magazine's long tan film packets before the airplane courier came to pick up my rolls of black and white Tri-x.
Captions expanded into scribbled notebooks to record events of life with the Tindals I knew I would never remember in detail. Then later, when it came time to write the book, many particulars of a uniquely different American life lay there in the 100 sheet three-by-five inch Joredco red, blue, yellow and green notebooks. Direct evidence of migrant existence answered why the Tindals chose their way of life and, to some extent, it chose them.
During a visit to the Tindals, father Luther Henry, or 'L.H.', as he is called, introduced me to fellow migrants who were playing double deck pinochle, saying 'Herman has been down the road with us. Look at our book. It's about all of us.' 'Our book.' That's the key. I could not have done it without them. Our collaboration over the many years produced something like a family picture album with stories, a work that made the Tindals authority figures for a way of life most of us in the greater American society know nothing about, the reasons for which are in the book.
In the intervening years since 1989, due to many domestic and foreign reincarnations of Fruit Tramps, I have periodically updated the story with new images and text. Every publication has had a new and different editorial slant on this family. Family generations allow a wealth of interpretation, viewpoint and perspective, from a dying grandfather who talks about his full Cherokee and one-time slave-runner father-in-law, to a fifteen year-old girl who reveals her feeling of pain, shame and frustration of being pregnant and unwed.
I went on assignment, for example, with German Geo in April, 1992, to bring the family into the decade of the 1990s, and to show its German readers a duality: on the one hand, an uncommon American way of life, in the broad sense; and, on the other, a migrant family that shares many common attributes with other impoverished families of a growing, marginalized subculture in rural America.
And the children have children. Little Tina Michelle Tindal, who was just three in 1979 when I photographed her de-leafing fruit in an apple bin has now started her own family. I have the feeling Fruit Tramps will never end, and maybe one day, after I'm gone, another curious photographer will pick up the book and wonder about life 'way down under.'