The French Pig (from salt to ham)

New Plan, New Schedule

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The moon and the stars.

There was a time when people believed the moon and stars revolved around the Earth, our world, our little, flat world. But things change. We get a new perspective. We figure it out. 

I'm learning to be flexible. These days my experience of authorship is more like stewarding a small boat in a storm. I'm just trying to survive the present so I can live to tell the tale. I'm being a little over dramatic. After all, I went to art school. I was trained to make paintings. There you hew the tale out of thin air and very fancy, special mud. But to actually make a tableaux, you have to understand its structure: the truth of its hermetic reality. Here I'm trying to... O Lord, I don't know. I guess I'm trying to make sense of things. 

So let me tell you what happened when we went back to Lasse that last afternoon in late March. 

As you know, we had hoped to shoot the birthing of the remaining expectant sow on Sunday so we returned from St Jean de Luz that Saturday afternoon, after spending only one night away. But of course that last mother delivered early on Friday night. So my camera has yet to witness a birth for you, my friends. 

But Julian was there on Saturday to receive us. I wanted to photograph all the newborn male piglets individually. And Julian was going to demonstrate a couple procedures I'll write about later. Julian is an amazingly patient man. As I told you earlier, the first time Kate explained my plan to follow one piglet from birth to ham, he asked "But how will you know which piglet will become ham?" His question nagged at me. I mean really I was hoping he would know; that he would pick the piglet most likely to win the jambon beauty contest, that he would choose the ham in waiting. I was puzzled by the problem all week. I lost sleep. Then it came to me, damn it I guess it's too early. I'll just photograph the biggest boys born this week. All the big boys. 

Shooting stars.

So I fashioned a photo set in the rustic corridor between the nativity rooms out of a scrap of wallboard set on top of a wheelbarrow pushed under fluorescent fixture with another light clamped to a utility cart to fill things out a bit. And Julian began wrangling newborn male piglets. One at a time. Mostly.

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I tried to stay calm and focused on the task but all along I was terrified that one of the boys would dive off the platform and scramble down the long, dark corridor at top speed. I imagined a scene akin to a silent movie Keystone-Cops-style chase of an animal the size of a kitten but far more muscular and wiley. Slapsick, yes; but far from silent. Word of the fiasco would get out, I imagined, and I would be shunned by the global porcine network. Luckily, that did not happen. And after a while, I got the hang of it.

Photo by Kate Hill

Photo by Kate Hill

Piglets are not exactly poseable.  They do however have moments of stillness. These moments of stillness usually occur right before they urinate. One develops a knack for exploiting these moments. 

Several piglets into this process, I became more relaxed and we start conversing. I say something like "Oh, after the shoot, we should discuss when these little guys get weaned and move to the Larre farm." It was as though a light bulb went off in Julian's head. He and Kate converse for a while in French. 

Change of plan, I am told.  

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I was telling this story to my friend, Zoe Saldana the other night (no, not that Zoe Saldana) . She must be as wonderful a teacher as she is an artist because she said to me. "I love those moments! That's a beautiful moment. Here you've been struggling to communicate with this person--a sympathetic person--and you had a break through. A moment of clarity when suddenly he gets your whole picture."

Zoe was right. It was a moment when in his own mind Julian went from peripheral player to stakeholder. It is also the moment in his mind when he realized we had been spending all our time getting to know the wrong piglets. Yes. The wrong piglets. This batch of newborns weren't destined to go to the Larre Farm. They delivered weaned piglets to that farm every three weeks. That batch of piglets was born the week before. 

Huh? 

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Yes, somehow the long game had been communicated but not the medium game. From our very first visit in December we had been out of synch. Wrong sows, wrong inseminations, wrong pregnancies, wrong births, wrong piglets.  

"Wrong" is such a harsh word.  

Julian sprung into action. He opened a different door on the long dark corridor and eventually emerged with three one-week-old piglets. They were about 25% larger than the piglets I had been photographing. These were the biggest most ham-worthy boys he could identify. I photographed them. They were like unruly two year olds. I photographed all three in less than 12 minutes. And then they were gone.

Their portraits are here. We'll name these three. They get weaned over Passover. They will be trucked to the Larre Farm by Easter. I won't be there to see that but Kate will drop by on the way to the Bayonne Ham Festival. 

Everybody just calm down. Everything worked out after all. Well, at least so far.