In the rolling hills of the Georgia Piedmont, south of Athens and near the community of Watkinsville, Mary Ruth Moore lives in a small cottage on land that has been in her family for eight generations. Her home is cluttered with books and photographs and boxes of old family letters, and the spare bedroom is dominated by a gigantic 8X10 solid mahogany studio camera built in 1900. A small screen porch off her bedroom is lined with an enormous collection of old bottles, the primary subjects of some of her photographic endeavors.
She is a serious student of Civil War history, a mother of three, a grandmother of 12, and an avid fan of the Georgia Bulldogs and the Atlanta Braves. At 78, Moore is officially retired but still teaches one photography course at the University of Georgia, where she has taught for more than 40 years. “I don’t make a lot of money,” she says. “But I love my job. And I’m still allowed to teach – to keep this flow of new people that come into my life. And it’s very, very invigorating.”
She thinks of herself more as a teacher than a photographer. “I never would say I’m a photographer,” Moore says. “I’d say I’m a teacher. I don’t think of myself as a photographer. I think of myself as a person who’s lived a rich long life, and I do photography.” But while trying to maintain that distinction, she recognizes that there is a “symbiotic relationship” between her teaching and her photography. “I keep on doing my art, which now is photography, and it works out beautifully because that’s what I teach. I just always think of myself that way.”
Colleagues however, while recognizing Moore’s teaching abilities, recognize the significance of her work as photographer. Dr. Robert Nix, her early mentor and now Emeritus Professor at the University of Georgia, describes her work as “absolutely unique. There is no one else out there doing the kind of work she has done,” he said. And Moore herself recognizes the central role of photography in her life: “If you study photography, if you work with it on a personal level, and you get to where you think about it — just to some degree it’s there in your mind, in the back of your mind, in your heart, in your way of visually perceiving the world it’s always there; if you get to that point, it will be a satisfying place for you to go, always, for the rest of your life.”
The uniqueness of her work lies in her use of ancient and sometimes bizarre photographic equipment and techniques, and in the ethereal natural light always captured in her work. Much of her work through the years has been “pinhole” photography. A pinhole camera is one where the lens is replaced with a simple pinhole. It can range from a simple light-tight box with film at the back and a small hole at the front, to a modern camera with the lens removed and replaced by a cover with a small hole in it. Some of her work utilizes the antique studio camera in her home with antique print paper used as the negative. “One of the earliest pioneers of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot, referred to…’a precious ritual, waiting for the light’,” Moore says. “And I won’t ever forget that because all the years that I worked almost entirely with pinhole and now with materials that just require a lot longer exposure, I find myself waiting for the light.” Indeed, a common theme throughout her work has been the use of materials and equipment requiring extraordinarily long exposures, sometimes running for several days, to capture changing light or changes in the subject of the photograph, such as the blooming of flowers, and to capture textures and qualities of light not evident with shorter exposures. “I use them (the equipment) for that reason,” she says. “I prefer the old camera, the paper negative, because of the irregularity and the technical flaws that are produced. There’s a graininess, there’s a luminosity and, especially if you’re really careful, and I am, I’m always looking for qualities of light, no matter what my subject matter is. I’m always aware, to the very depths of me, that I am drawing a picture with light. I’ve got to have light to get a decent exposure, but I’ve got to have a quality of light so that the drama, the mood, the beauty of the drawing by light comes through.” And indeed, the light does come through, making many of her subjects appear to glow in the light she has captured.
Moore was born on the second day of April in 1936 just a few miles from the farm where she now lives, in the front bedroom of her mother’s parents’ home on what is now Carson Graves Road. Her mother, Ruth Graves, was the youngest of 11 children, and had married Reginald Hardigree, who grew up on the farm where Moore now lives. Her father was an engineer who supervised power plant construction and the family moved every few years throughout the southeast to her father’s next project. She attended schools in Macon, Georgia; Pensacola, Florida; Charleston, South Carolina; and Mobile, Alabama, where she finished high school. She graduated from the University of Montevallo in Alabama with a degree in art. In 1960, she married Wayne Jones, whom she had known in high school, and settled in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Her husband died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1962, leaving Moore with two daughters, Laura Lee almost two years old and Bess barely two months. After living with her parents for three years, she moved her two girls back to the area of her family home place in 1965 and began teaching school and attending the University of Georgia in the summers, where she received a Masters in Art Education 1970. She first became interested in photography when Dr. Nix, one of her professors at Georgia, loaned her a camera and encouraged her to begin taking pictures. She took his photography course in 1970 as part of her graduate studies, where she says she was “simply bowled over” by what he was teaching. “He talks a lot about light. He talks about light more than any other professor that I know of except me. And that’s what attracted me.” She began teaching photography in 1973. She was married to Alan Moore in 1973 and gave birth to her third child, Luke, in 1974. Mr. Moore died in 1993.The original farmhouse, where Moore lived for many years, was built by her great grandfather when he settled there just after the Civil War. She moved into a smaller cottage on the property a few years ago to allow her son and his growing family to move into the larger main house.
“This place, our home place, consists of the main house, which is an early farm house, the cottage where I live now, and various barns and out buildings. It was built in the 1870’s by my great grandpa. It’s not a grand house at all. It’s a Georgia farm house. It consists of a large central hallway and originally had two rooms on each side. There was a front porch and there was a porch in the back, and you crossed over that back porch to the cooking and dining area.
“I read sometime where somebody did a poll…and asked people if they could have a conversation with anyone that had ever lived, who it would be. I’d like to talk to my great grandpa. There’s so much that’s come down about him that I feel like I know him better than anybody, because I have read his letters, over and over. And he built that house. It’s just built so fine. The original craftsmanship was fine. Silas and Norine, my grandchildren, are the sixth generation to live in that house. Everybody’s left their mark on it.
“The way he lined it up means so much to me because I’ve photographed in it so much. There’s one window, toward the front, and in the wintertime, when there’s not so much foliage on the trees, the north light comes in that window…the light and the spaces, it inspired me. And it continues to inspire me.”
Inspired by the history that surrounds her –the Civil War, the old cemeteries, the family home place, the found bottles, and by the places she has spent time photographing – Cumberland Island, Georgia, and Cortona, Italy, where she taught for 10 summers, Mary Ruth Moore has created a vast body of largely unrecognized work as a photographer. She has never promoted her work and she never anticipated that any of it would ever be published. “I have hoped that maybe sometime some day, somebody will still cherish this,” she says. “But the only way I’ve thought about it is feeling sorry for my children — what are they going to do with all my stuff? How much of it is just going to be discarded out of sheer frustration?”
And what would she hope that the visitor takes away from this website? “It’s a group of pictures,” she says. “There are words, but the main thing is the pictures. As odd and difficult and impossible as it seems, each person really is an individual. They have their own mind’s eye and their own sense of what’s precious…I’ve done it in techniques that you don’t see all the time that give different renderings. I just feel like anybody that looks at this collection of one person’s work over decades, that it’s going to be a lot of fun to look at.”
CLICK HERE to read an in depth interview with Mary Ruth Moore.