If you had a day to devote to your photography, with no other obligations, what would be your idea of the perfect day?
I love working in the darkroom. I could spend unlimited time in the darkroom. But there has to be something to work with that’s very satisfying. So a day such as you describe would involve shooting, as far as I’m concerned. That would be where the creative act occurs and it would be my participation in the making of a photograph. Shooting. A whole day shooting. If I was working with the big camera, that 8X10 view camera, the studio camera, I wouldn’t be able to take it outdoors. So I could see myself content for a whole day shooting with that big camera. And it would be, because of the nature of the camera, it would be still life, which I love to do…always have, with my bottles in particular, because that’s what I’ve been involved in for almost three years now. I’ve been photographing bottles, still-lifes, with that great big 8X10 very old view camera using single weight photographic paper as negatives. And I love doing that. Now I also would like to shoot portraits. I can see myself shooting portraits with that big camera. But I haven’t practiced doing that much because I have the very, very slow paper negatives, and so it doesn’t lend itself to portraiture. Now the other camera would be my Nikon FM. It’s an old Nikon film camera and I don’t think anyone else has ever used that camera. It was given to me brand new back in the 70’s when that was state of the art as far as Nikon goes and I’m still using it, and I love using it. That gives a lot of freedom, so I can see myself, I narrowed it down to ruins. I would love to shoot with someone or by myself. Usually, if I was with someone it would wind up that before long I would be by myself because my partner or friends would get worn out and disappear and I could go right on shooting. And ruins, that could be ruins such as rural structures that are doomed because of nature or doomed because of encroaching development. Rural structures…that would be dwellings, barns, outhouses, that either are in a state of ruin or are very, very old. And I feel a passion to record things that represent another time. Now ruins that would be down on Cumberland Island, Dungeness. The ruins down there I would love to photograph, and have. I’ve done all of this and so I have that in my frame of reference. I know that it would be a perfect day. Churches, really early rural churches that might still be used and might not. Cemeteries, that might be connected with those churches or remotely located family cemeteries. I can spend just an indefinite number of hours rambling. Now something else that I have spent a long time doing is I really am intrigued with the gathering of hay. It’s an ancient thing between man and that plant. They sow the seeds they nurture it along, it grows up, it ripens, and then they gather it. They put it into bales or haystacks and I’ve been a part of that and I would love to work and I’ve done this, work with usually I’m not that strong so I would be the one designated to drive the truck and that goes very, very slowly but with the camera available. I wouldn’t be there just on a photographic expedition. I would be doing something else that would be very meaningful and I would have the camera available. Most all of this would be almost without exception black and white. Black and white film.
What is it about black and white that interests you?
Well, I like black and white. And I’ve shot a lot of color. I had a professor that said that we needed to shoot black and white five years before we ever shot color. And this was a long time ago, that would be impractical now in the educational scene. We don’t have that much time. But then, there weren’t many photo majors so we really spent that much time and I did. I spent at least five years shooting black and white. And then my experiences travelling to Italy inspired me to make that change, to at least broaden my endeavors so that I would shoot color as well as black and white. And then there were years that I just shot color. But then when I came back to black and white, oh it was like a breath of fresh air. Black and white is more abstract. We see in color. When you do a color photograph, you’re photographing things the way you see them. When you divorce the potential from being able to accommodate color, you’ve just got the values. Anything can be either lighter or darker, there’s no other way to go. With color, it’s three times more complex. It’s hard to shoot a color photograph that wouldn’t work every bit as well in black and white, and maybe better. Because we respond to color so emotionally so we photograph it, we capture it, and unless you think about the palette of the photograph and that it is an artistic statement, not just a document of what you pointed the camera at, it becomes, well, for want of a better word, boring. Because it looks just like what you saw. But when you shoot in black and white, not only is it more abstract because it’s just values but it’s an artistic statement.
You mentioned your large studio camera. Can you tell me a little bit about that camera?
It’s very old. It was built in 1900. It’s made of solid mahogany. Of course the format is 8X10 inches. It will accommodate an 8X10 inch negative. It’s called a studio camera or a view camera sometimes, because before you put the negative in, you can open the shutter and actually view exactly what is going to be your photograph. You’re looking exactly through the lens and you see that 8X10. Of course it’s upside down, but you can adjust to that very quickly. Once you have made your composition and decided on the exposure, what f number you’re going to use and how long you’re going to keep the shutter open, then you put your negative holder in the negative plane. The camera is designed so that you can do that. The one I use is wooden. If you were to buy a new one now it would be plastic. But the old wooden negative holders will handle a negative on each side. And you would have to load those negatives in darkness before you were ready to use them. And when you got ready to use them, then you would take your loaded negative holder and put it in the negative plane. It would be at the back of the bellows. And at the front of the bellows is the lens board. And you would then remove the dark slide, which is a piece of plastic or something thin and completely opaque. And then you make your exposure and then you put that dark slide back over the negative, take the negative holder out, turn it around, and then do another exposure. And then you take the negative holder out and you can store it or you can take it to a darkroom and develop it.
Does the age of that camera affect the photograph or could you do the exact same thing with a new studio camera?
You could do the same thing. The lens is not a coated lens as a modern camera would be so I just like it better. And I use a bulb to operate the shutter and as long as you hold it down, the shutter will stay open. It’s a bulb connected with a tube connected to the shutter mechanism, so that you squeeze that bulb and compressed air forces the shutter open and as long as you hold the bulb down, the shutter stays open. When you have a long enough exposure, you release it. So you open it with a bulb and you close it with a bulb. Dr. Nix, another professor, put something called a Packard shutter on there. It was a shutter that was very progressive when it came out. You can squeeze the bulb just so and it will open the shutter and you don’t have to hold it open. And then you can go back and squeeze it just so and it will close it. It’s great. I wouldn’t be able to do some of the long exposures I do without that.
What type of negatives do you use in that camera?
The negatives that work best for using paper as the negative material is a paper Kodak put out way before my time. It’s a graded paper; it’s a grade 2 paper so it’s not real high contrast which is a good thing for a negative because you get more information. And it’s also single weight. And as far as I’ve been able to find out, you can’t get single weight paper on this planet. It isn’t made as photographic paper any more. But I have some and people have given me some that they found cleaning out a darkroom or something. And I’ve still got close to 100 sheets left and when that’s gone, then I’ll have to come up with something else, but it works so well.
Is it fair to say that the camera that you use, the paper that you use, and all of the techniques that you use are designed to give you an effect in the print that you are trying to achieve?
I use them for that reason. 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. If you’ve got light that’s too contrasty or light that’s too flat or light that’s just kind of providing distracting bright areas in the picture, you just wish you didn’t.
You know one of the earliest pioneers of photography was William Henry Fox Talbot, a British gentleman. He discovered photography along the same time that Daguerre did. His were different in that he used a negative. He used paper as the photographic negative. It was so long ago, relating it to the history of photography, that the word photograph hadn’t even been coined. So he referred to his pictures as sun pictures. He worked in England, about 17 miles south of London, at a place called Lacock Abbey, which was his ancestral home. It’s not far from Bath. I’ve been there. He was a scientist and he was very bright, and well-to-do, and he devoted his time to putting together a technique of chemistry and nature so that what he could see in the camera obscura which was just a viewing camera, just a box with a lens and ground glass, and you could look down in there and you could see nature. The camera obscura has been around for centuries. It was very seductive to see that image…the delineation of nature. And so he was driven just like Daguerre and the other people, Samuel F.B. Morse in our country was trying to put those things together. Well Talbot worked with the negative. He put a piece of negative with a very crude emulsion on it and stuck it in a little box that he had built and looked for somewhere where there was nice light. He was accustomed to looking at light to see the direction it was coming from, that it was articulating the edge, so that everything looked good. He took his camera around to different places and he went to Paris. In an upstairs window, he photographed the windows across the street from where he was. And those were shuttered windows. Some of the shutters weren’t quite closed and weren’t all the way open. He described the light that was coming in down the street. He wanted to wait until the light, the late afternoon light, touched the edge of those shutters. And he referred to it as “a precious ritual…waiting for the light”. 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. I try to get that to my students because they’re so used to instant feedback, and they’re so used to cameras that will give you one 8000th of a second exposure. The longest mechanical exposure is 30 seconds. You can get cameras that you can set and it will mechanically time a 30 second exposure, but no longer than that. I’ve made exposures that have gone for days. What I’m talking about is before you commit yourself to the picture, you wait for the light to get right. Now of course that implies for sure that I much prefer daylight to artificial light. If you’re good at setting up artificial light you’d have to understand daylight.
You were an artist before you became interested in photography?
All my life. Drawing and Painting. When I went to college, I got my undergraduate degree in art. It was at the University of Montevallo, south of Birmingham, Alabama. Of course photography wasn’t taught in college. That was in 1954. It was a long time; it was 20 years before photography would find its way into academia where it was taught like in the school of art at Georgia. I majored in art and that meant I took a couple of courses in painting and drawing, one course in ceramics, one course in art history. So I had a degree. And then I got a teaching certificate so I’d be able to earn a living.
And when did you first become interested in photography as a art form?
I got a little interested in it when I would make photographs to use in my drawing and painting. But when I got interested in photography as an art form was when I was doing graduate work at the University of Georgia. We were on the quarter system so it wasn’t unusual to be in a class all afternoon. I was almost ready to get my masters and get out of there and I got in Dr. Nix’s class “Teaching Art in the secondary school”. Dr. Nix had been in photography most all of his life. He had a lot of experience in photography…very good in photography. He told me one day “Mary Ruth, go down to the basement to my office and look over underneath my desk. There’s an old Exacta camera there. I want you to load it and go out and document Oconee Hills Cemetery”. And I said all right, so I did. And of course, I tell my students this when they come in and develop a roll of film and it’s totally blank, I didn’t load it exactly right and I got to about shot number 40, and I thought “This is certainly a very long roll of film.” I rewound it and developed it and it was blank. But it was so much fun doing that…to just take a whole roll of film. I didn’t have a camera so I was using a borrowed camera. The only camera I had owned was a little Brownie and I don’t know whatever happened to that. I made some good pictures with that Brownie camera. But I used Dr. Nix’s camera and then I photographed around in Watkinsville and never had had a course in photography. I got my Masters at the end of that summer and that fall, I stayed in school and I took beginning photography from Dr. Nix. In those years and until within the last few years, part of the beginning photography curriculum was to build a pinhole camera and use it. I’ve still got my pinhole camera, it’s sitting right in there, the one that I built. And I fell in love. I really fell in love with photography. That was in 1970. I don’t have a degree in photography because I was in a doctoral program at that time and photography was just part of the studio requirement toward the doctorate.
Is there any way that you can explain what it is about photography that you fell in love with?
Oh yeah. I can explain that. It was in Dr. Nix’s beginning photography class. And you’ve got to realize…it’s in 1970. So how old was I? I was 35. I had Laura Lee and Bess (children). So I brought to it, maybe not as much youth and vigor as some of those 20 and 21-year-olds that were my classmates, but I had a lot more baggage, in a way, and I don’t think I had any wisdom by then, but I had done a lot of stuff. I was just bowled over by the things Dr. Nix was teaching me. He talks a lot about light. He talks a lot about light more than any other professor that I know of except me. And that’s what attracted me. That’s what caught it. To me, photography…we’re going through a lot of technical upheaval now but still photography is a light drawing. I believe that it’s the purest of the media. I think it’s purer than drawing and painting. I think it’s right up there maybe with architecture. I think that photography, that’s the only medium that has depth of field, which has selected depth of field. I don’t think it’s any coincidence at all that impressionism came along at about the same time that people started making photographs. Where there’s something, the subject is well lit and very, very finely resolved and there’s this out of focus tapestry behind it. It’s powerful. And that’s what I love. I love the light. I love that it is created by light.
Do you feel that photography allows you to express your own feelings better than any other art form?
As far as I know now, it does. But if I had continued with drawing and painting, with painting in particular, and worked with it, as much as I’ve worked with photography, I don’t know how that would be. But the way I am right now and the way I see where I’ve come and what I love to do now and the things I like to say now…and as far as I know that’s the way I’m going to be, Photography does it.
What is it about yourself and your own personality and your own feelings that you are trying to convey in this art?
In a way there is something, and I try to express this to my students early in the semester, that 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. No matter if you choose to commit to a tangible photograph that you can put in a frame and hang on a wall or not, you might not even have your camera with you, but you see it all the time in very mundane situations. We spend a lot of time waiting. You know it’s part of our life. We’re in traffic and we’re waiting. We’re on the bus and we’re waiting. We’re in line somewhere and we’re waiting. And you’re still breathing. Everything’s working. The juices are flowing and there you stand, on hold. But you can be doing something. You can think “Thank you God for letting me be here and see this”.
Waiting for the light?
Uh huh…waiting for the light.
Tell me exactly what pinhole photography is?
You have the same things that you have in a normal camera. You’ve got the body, and it’s a light tight chamber, and you have a lens which projects the light from outside into the negative. You have a place to secure the negative. You have some way to control the shutter speed. With an SLR camera you have a way to control the size of the hole that lets the light in, the f number. And all of those things exist with a pinhole camera. The big difference is that instead of a lens, you put an optic…it’s still an optic. A lens is an optic and a pinhole is an optic. You have a focal length, which is the distance from that optic to the negative plane, inside the camera. You compute what size pinhole you make according to that focal length. The reason you are careful to do that is it controls the focus. So you drill a hole. Once you’ve got it that far along then you could just put your finger over the pinhole for a shutter if you wanted to, or rig up some way that you could have an exposure time. What happens, it’s just so simple, light hits your subject, reflects in and comes through that pinhole. Light is going in straight lines. The pinhole concentrates those “streams of photons” (laughing) and the negative material stops it. The negative material normally is some kind of material that changes when light hits it, whether it’s film or paper. And the more light hits it, the darker it gets. So you have a negative going on there. But the pinhole has no modification of that light as a lens does. The light has to come through a lens, and so you have depth of field. The pinhole doesn’t have depth of field.
The lens is focused on a specific distance?
Un Huh. And also a lens has options. It’ll open up to f 3.5, it’ll close down to f 16 or whatever and you can set it at any one of those and it changes the size of the hole. But the pinhole obviously, the only way you could do that would be to have some other pinholes.
And so what are the characteristics of pinhole photography?
Well it’s got that unlimited depth of field. Of course it’s soft. Even a meticulously constructed pinhole camera and exposure is not going to be as sharp as a lens photograph. But everything is uniformly sharp from a certain distance from the pinhole. It would depend on what your focal length was. If it was say a four inch focal length, which would be super wide angle. Anything from within an inch of the pinhole to infinity is uniformly sharp. That’s pretty amazing.
Other than the depth of field which is unlimited, and the softness of the picture, what is it that attracted you so much to pinhole photography?
The participation. There is no viewing window. You have a viewfinder system based on the fact that two points make a straight line. You can’t see it. You still can’t see it. I love it.
What about the resulting picture?
You never know…and I love that too. I like the unexpected. And I like that it’s very demanding. There’s not an instant gratification. If there’s anything that’s the opposite of instant gratification, it’s pinhole photography the way I really enjoy doing it. Also, something else that happened that I didn’t plan. I think it just about changed my life. I was down here in this very house. I set up a bowl of white roses. I was using a pinhole camera that was very large. The negative was 11X14 inches. I set it up, got it lined up just right, opened the shutter. I left the shutter open. I was using the same paper we discussed. I figured that the f number for that box was 468. F 468. If you figured the f number by dividing the diameter of the pinhole into the focal length which was maybe 12 to 15 inches, it was f 468. So it was super slow. And the negative material was very, very slow. If you gave it an ISO rating, it would be a minus number. So I thought I would leave it for four hours. So I did, and it was underexposed. Four hours. So I left it for a day. I just opened the shutter. Nobody lived in this house then. It was just on the place. And nobody ever came in out here. I used what is now the kitchen. I used daylight coming in those windows. And a day wasn’t long enough. So I said, “well shoot, I’ll just do two days and leave it overnight”. I thought about “what’ll it do in the night…what is going to happen?” Well of course nothing happens at night except things do expand and contract…even the paper does. What happened was the roses, they all opened up. It was a time lapse exposure. It was like a movie. And it was all on one frame. Nobody had ever seen that before with still photography.
There was another long exposure photograph that you took in a square in Italy.
Yes. It was in Venice. I was up on the balcony of San Marco Cathedral in Venice. I had a camera that I built in anticipation of carrying it to Italy. The negative was a half of an 11X14. So it was 7X11. And the camera was made out of cedar. That pinhole camera…I’ve still got it. I just set it on the marble wall and it just sat there for 30 minutes and photographed the whole San Marco Square in August in the middle of the afternoon. So it was teeming with people. The ground of the square is tile with beautiful patterns that you really can’t see and appreciate when you’re up high and look down. But you couldn’t see all of that because there were so many people. There was one guy that was doing photographs…he had an old view camera. And there was a couple over in the shade asleep. There were two guys taking their siesta right there in San Marco Square. But they’re the only ones that showed up…the man with the camera and the sleeping people. Everybody else disappeared.
So they were able to walk through the square but none of them were on film long enough to be captured by that slow camera and film?
And you could see the paving patterns. I can’t explain it. I know what happened but it’s hard to accept it. It’s hard to just see it in your mind’s eye.
Do you still do pinhole photographs?
I don’t do them as much now. I haven’t shot a pinhole in a while now. I miss it. I’ll go back to it. But I’ve gotten so involved in using this view camera, photographing my bottles. I love that so much. And I want to use up this paper.
You mentioned the bottles earlier. Can you tell me about those bottles?
I can’t remember when I first started collecting bottles. I think it was when I first moved to this place…into the big house in 1970. My grandma and granddaddy had just moved out. They had just left. They didn’t clean it out or anything. So we had to go in and clean it out. It was an amazing thing cleaning out a house that four generations had lived in up to that point. I found a bottle back in the old bathroom. It’s still one of my most valuable and favorite bottles. It’s Warner’s Safe Kidney and Liver Cure. It’s a brown bottle. And it probably was about 90 proof patent medicine. It’s got an embossed safe, like a bank safe, on the front. It still had the stopper in it. But there wasn’t any liquid in it. It was in the house. And I thought “this is the neatest old bottle I ever saw”. So I kept it. Then, around here I found a Coca Cola bottle in Slab Camp Branch. It has Athens, Georgia embossed on the bottom. It says Coca Cola. It originally was clear, but it has turned purple because of exposure to the ultraviolet rays of the sun. And its flawed. The old glass isn’t consistent in its thickness. There are bubbles in it. If it’s been outdoors for a long time, some people call it sick glass. It’s kind of opalescent where it’s started to deteriorate and it catches the light and shows the colors of the spectrum.
You still have a large collection of bottles?
Oh yes. It’s still growing. My students sometimes bring me bottles. Sometimes, next to the art building, there’s a graveyard and next to that is an excavation where they have put in a greenhouse and created a nice garden, and we went over where they had dug into a bank. A class of students went over there doing photography, and we found some bottles in that dirt bank that I have photographed. I love the bottles. I guess some of my bottles are collectible. Some are really nice. But that’s not why I collect them. I would give someone a bottle but I don’t think I’d sell it.
Why have these bottles become a favorite subject matter for you?
Because of the way they modulate the light. Look at those bottles. Especially with the paper negative. And also the digital print. That’s something really important, that marriage of a very traditional, even strange technique and equipment with very fine scanning and digital printing onto paper that traditionally we would think of as watercolor paper. It’s such beautiful paper and it has such a nice surface. To put a photograph on it is just wild.
(Omitted section concerning how to categorize pictures)
Tell me about going to Italy.
It was in 1983, the first time I went. I went to see Jack Keho (sp?) who was the director of the studies abroad program. I told him that I needed to go. I thought it would be a good thing to go to Italy and for him to find something to do with me, because I was going and he needed to pay my way because I didn’t have any money, and to give me a job. And he said “I know exactly what I want you to do. I want you to set me up a darkroom in Cortona.” So I said “I can do that.” And that’s what I did. So I didn’t teach. But then the next year, 1984, was when I took Luke with me, and taught photography. That was the first time photography was taught in that program. So I went in 1983, 1984, 1985. 1984 was when Laura Lee went, so I had both of them over there. And then 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1989. I went 11 years total. Alan was sick. He died in 1993. So I didn’t go in 1990 or the next few years. I went the next time in 1996. And then I know I went in 1999 and 2000. The last time I went was in 2002. I went a total of 11 trips. You know the lighting of Italy is just written about and talked about and dreamed about. You always hear of the amber light of Florence. And it’s beautiful. But it’s not any prettier than Georgia. There’s beautiful light right here. I don’t know about other areas of our country but I bet…I think in Italy there’s a kind of a haze that’s characteristic of the light over there that’s quite lovely. And of course there’s all that marvelous architecture and art. And the Tuscan hills. There’s a lot to modulate the light.
I want to totally shift gears for a few minutes. I am interviewing you at your home on the family farm near Athens, Georgia. Can you tell me a little about the history of this place?
Which is my favorite part, because I think that this has a lot, maybe not everything, but not too much shy of everything to do with my photography. This place, our home place, consists of the main house, which is an early farm house. 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 with 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 expect when it was new, it was just one room where the cooking and dining all took place. When my granddaddy married and brought his wife home with him she just grew up right up Jerusalem road not far from here at all, they just moved in with his parents and he added the upstairs. He put a flight of stairs and made a living area upstairs. And that’s where they lived. Great grandpa was born in 1836 and he was the generation that went to war. When he married, he married a Fambrough. He was a Hardigree, Sam Hardigree and he married Margaret Fambrough. When they married, they lived with her folks at a big old farm house down close to the river. In 1861, two things happened. They had a little girl and he joined the confederacy. He and his young brother John joined the confederacy. It’s amazing to me to think about all those men leaving home…just leaving their families. Just picking up a rifle and maybe a horse if they had one. I never saw a picture or heard any mention whatsoever of great grandpa Sam wearing a uniform. When he wrote to her and asked her to make him clothes, it was maybe a jacket, maybe a blanket, make me some drawers, make me a shirt. They just headed for Athens and joined because they felt like that’s what they were supposed to do. So he then, was gone, for a good period of time. When he got back home from the war…his brother didn’t make it. He was killed at Gettysburg. But Sam got back home. He came down to the Fambrough house where they lived. I just want to mention maybe just this one thing. In reading his letters, he had an artist’s eye. I know that he did even though he was a farmer through and through, with very little education. He wrote a beautiful pen and could read and write. He read a lot of stuff. But whatever he learned, he taught himself. In his letters, he would try to comfort her and everybody at home. “Don’t worry. I don’t know when but we’re going to get through this.” He said to her “I would like might well to come up and find you down in the little garden”. It’s a picture. It’s a mental picture that he painted. He could see her. He could see her down there picking peas or whatever she was doing down in the garden. He’d just love to be able to walk up and find her like that. I love those things. Those little scenes that he painted in those letters. There are 28 of them so there’s a lot of stuff that he wrote about. I don’t know how he did it with the conditions that he was writing in, but he did it. He came home and they had little Laura, the little baby, that was maybe five years old then. He came up on this hill, and decided this is where he’d put his house. He came up here…and this has come down to us, on March 21st, the vernal equinox. That was the day that he lined up his house.
How did he get this land?
From his daddy, Joel Hardigree. We’ve just recently come across some quitclaim deeds and some agreements and some transferences of deeds where he got this place. It was about 90 acres. He had a lot more land than that that he farmed but I think he deliberately secured what he considered the home place. And the rest of it he would wheel and deal with. He would trade, he would sell it, he would add on to it. His father owned this. His grandfather was Jonathon who had just fathered a lot of children. One of Jonathon’s sons was Joel who was Great Grandpa Sam’s daddy. I think his daddy was dead when he bought it. He bought it from several of his siblings. Maybe the house is actually sitting on land that came to him but after he built the house I think he secured from at least one brother and one sister the land that they had so that he would have him home place secured. So on March 21st, he lined his front door up with the North Star. Now that’s the story that comes down to us. And that house, there’s not a time in the year that direct sunlight hits that front porch. It never comes in that front door. It’s always shady…the front porch is always shady. The east sun comes in here and it goes across the hall and through the windows on the other side. It varies as the year progresses. The south, where the kitchen is, is warm. Now that’s all very practical. He was a smart man to make the family as comfortable as possible in the way he oriented his house to the points of the compass. But it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful. And some of my best work I’ve done in that house. It goes on and on and on. I go over there now and visit with Luke (my son) and I see plays of light. And I point it out to my grandchildren. Now one time…I want to tell you this story, in 2002, when we were doing the big switch, I was moving from there over to here and they were going over there in preparation for Norine’s birth. They were having work done on the house, a lot of work. Matt Alston was one of the carpenters, an excellent gifted carpenter. He and I were walking in the back door of the hall. He wanted to show me some of the work they had done in there. We walked in the back door of the hall, and headed up the hall just a few steps and Matt was in front of me and he said Whoa, and held his arms out. There was a great big rattlesnake in the hall. They had taken the floor up in that northeast room. So it was just open to the earth there. It was hot summertime…it was in the spring but it was real warm. That big snake. You know what I thought about, I said “Matt we’ve got to kill that snake, but just look at him, how beautiful the light is.” He was headed for the front door. The front door was open. And that north light was coming in and he was moving very slowly and he was curving back and forth and back and forth, headed…he wanted to get out. But he was moving very slowly. And the north light was coming in skimming across that snake and it was the prettiest thing…it wasn’t pretty, it was powerful.
You didn’t have your camera?
I didn’t have my camera. But I tell you, it was scary. But I won’t ever forget how he looked. That’s something I’ll have to draw a picture of I guess. Matt killed him…hung him in a tree.
So it was your great grandfather who built the house and when his son got married he came back and built the upstairs…that was your grandfather. Who else has lived in that house?
At that time when grandma and granddaddy married and came, there was Sam and Miss Marg who was his wife. Laura was grown…she was older than granddaddy. And all of them were living there at that time. Now Miss Fanny was granddaddy’s mother, not Miss Marg. I don’t know how they met. I have lots of her letters too. She was my great grandmother. She was well educated and very talented in art and music. She grew up down at Pinfield, Georgia which is a little town that’s still there. Mercer University originated at Pinfield. Somehow they met and she had my grandfather out of wedlock. She never married. And Great Grandpa Sam never left his wife. She went up to Washington, D.C. and had Granddaddy. Great Grandpa Sam went and got them and took her home to her folks because her parents were old and she was the only one left to look after them. I think it was something they had planned that they were completely aware of and deliberate about. And he brought that baby boy, that infant baby boy…I can just see him, I bet he looked like Jones (my grandson). He brought him home and gave him to his wife, and said here’s your little boy. And she raised him.
She had had difficulty in childbirth when Laura was born?
You know, people talk. When Mama started looking like she was serious about Daddy, her mother knew the story of that family. She said she heard that Miss Marg had a really, really hard delivery when Laura was born. It could be that there just weren’t going to be any more children. So he wanted another child. Got him a little boy, brought him home. Grandma and Granddaddy married in February, 1912 and then daddy was born the end of that year, in December. So there Daddy was, all of those people still living in that house. And then Aunt Helen was born in 1914 and Uncle Jerry was born in 1917. But great Grandpa Sam died in 1917 and Miss Marg died around that time too. So there was that generation that passed on. But there was Grandma and Grandaddy and Auntie (Laura) stayed there until her death, and she lived to be up in her nineties. Mama and Daddy married in 1934. They lived out in a little house that’s torn down now. In 1943 they built that concrete dam down on the branch and that was important because it let us have a pond. But also it backed up water that was diverted to operate a waterwheel that pumped stream water all the way up the hill and collected in a reservoir outside the kitchen. And they had running water in that house before anyone else had even heard of such a thing.
How did you come to live in that house?
When my first husband died prematurely, very young, 26 years old, and Bess was just two months old, we were living in Chattanooga, Tennessee. There was a nursing infant and Laura Lee was just barely two. So we went home to Birmingham and lived with Mama and Daddy, for a little while, until Bess was three and Laura Lee was five. I decided I wanted to go back to school. I looked around and it was amazing how few colleges had any kind of graduate program in art. But the University of Georgia did. That’s what Lamar Dodd gave to us. And I’d always loved it over here so much. Growing up, Mama and Daddy would always say “we’ll go home to Christmas”. And what they meant was over here. I felt that way about it too, a lot more than my brother and sister. I thought that I would bring Bess, I’d let Laura Lee stay with Mama and Daddy, and I would come over here and bring Bess because she was still real small. We rode the Crescent Limited over here from Birmingham. Mama’s people were still living then…all of her brothers and sisters that lived in their old home place. We stayed with them, with Aunt Maynon and Uncle Bud and Aunt Beryl and Aunt Marion. I said God, if I can find a job and a place to live, then I will accept that to mean that I’m supposed to come to Georgia. It was big to leave Mama then. They didn’t want me to do that. None of them wanted us to move that far away from them. But I knew it was best to move at least far enough to where I couldn’t just jump home on a weekend. So I did, I found a job teaching school in Jackson County, teaching the fourth grade. And I rente a farm house, an old empty farm house on Hog Mountain Road outside of Watkinsville. I went home and packed up everything I had and called up the Red Ball Express and they came out and loaded it up. And I got on the train. I didn’t even have a car. And I came to Georgia. We stayed there at the old Charlie Doolittle place.
How did you teach without a car?
Well Al Dooley built me one. A Renault. His daddy and his brother I think ran a Renault dealership. Renault was very big then. And so he put one together for me. And I drove it. Before he did that though, I had to borrow Granddaddy’s Lincoln. Granddaddy had a great big Lincoln. It was a Lincoln Continental and he had knocked part of the barn out so there would be room for it to park in there. It had leather upholstery and push-button windows. It had leaves on the back seats. So I drove that to school for a little while until Alan got my Renault ready for me. Aunt Maynon and them helped me all they could. I didn’t need much help. We did fine. It was a tremendous step for me to put Laura Lee and Bess in a day care center. It was the first one that was in Athens. It still exists…the Jack and Jill Day care center. It’s still there. I took those two little girls there and left them and then came back and got them in the afternoon. That was really hard. And in the summer I went to school.
At that point, who was living in this house?
Grandma and Granddaddy. Two things happened. Grandma and Granddaddy got feeble. Grandma really was feeble. Her mind was gone. Granddaddy was looking after her. They lived down here in this house. They had left the big house. It was Christmas. I had come down here to bring them some presents and to visit, check on them. I told Granddaddy “Mr. Ridgeway has gone up on my rent. He’s gone from $50 a month to $75 a month. And I’m just not going to pay that kind of rent.” And he said, “Well, the big house is empty. You could come down here and live.” And I thought, this is remote now but then it was the edge of the earth. I was going to school in the summer but in the winter I was teaching in Watkinsville. We had to clean it up. We worked and worked and got it cleaned up. Those two children and I, Laura Lee and Bess, we lived in that big house over there by ourselves. We just loved it. It wasn’t air conditioned. The only heat there was were fireplaces and a few of the rooms had little space heaters.
You mentioned earlier that that house has something to do with your photography. Can you explain that?
I read sometime where somebody did a poll, made an experimental survey, and asked people if you could have a conversation with anyone that had ever lived, who would it be? Most people said Jesus, even non-christians. Most people were curious about Jesus and wanted to talk to him. I’d like to talk to my Great Grandpa. Because 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 over. And he built that house. It’s just built so fine. The original craftsmanship was fine. Silas and Norine are the sixth generation to live in that house. Everybody’s left their mark on it. Even Granddaddy, as talented as he was with his hands, when he go old, he did some bad carpentry, dangerous carpentry, when he got old. But Sam I think was a craftsman, at that time in his life. I think he built his house, and he did a real good job of it. The way he lined it means so much to me because I’ve photographed in it so much. I’ve photographed a lot in the northeast window. There’s one window, toward the front. In the wintertime, when there’s not so much foliage on the trees, that north light comes in that window. That’s where I photographed that airplane, right there in that window, and there are lots of other things, lots of photographs I’ve made there…all of them pinhole.
So when you said the house had a lot to do with your photography, you just mean that because of the light there…
The light and the spaces. It inspired me. And it continues to inspire me. You know there’s some work that I’ve done – I’ve photographed that portrait work in what we call the parlor. It’s got that kind-of bay window, those there windows on this side. That’s really pretty light. And it goes on and on. And there have been other people – Dr. Nix has photographed in that house a lot. And I’ve had students –one time we thought about doing an exhibition of all the photographs in that house.
You were still teaching in elementary school when you got your Masters degree at Georgia?
I got my masters degree in 1970. 1970 was a big year, wasn’t it? And I had met Alan Moore by then. I think in 1969 I was still teaching in the elementary school and I was still teaching in 1970. When I started working at the University, the first time I actually taught a class at the University was in 1973. I was pregnant with Luke and I got a call that my good friend Suzanne Seal had gotten hit by a car in Norfolk, Virginia and had been killed. I took her place teaching beginning photography. It was what they call a temporary part time assistant –some ludicrous title that I still kind of cherish. It was not a tenure track.
They had no idea that you would never leave?
I didn’t either. But I could have because that’s like me—to get somewhere and just make a place for myself.
And you’ve been teaching there ever since and so that’s 34 years?
According to their records I’ve been teaching 32 years so I think they don’t count those first two years.
Do you plan on retiring any time?
I really want to retire. I don’t want to retire because I’m sick. I want to be able to still find out the goodness of that time in my life. But I still enjoy teaching. I taught this summer, and because the enrollment was low, because it was summer, I let in some people that are not art majors. There was somebody in there in English and Anthropology and Social Work. And there’s a girl named Alice that was Political Science. She talked me into letting her into the next class. She’s a good photographer. Never had taken any kind of art. She was in Political Science and her father’s aspiration for her was for her to be a lawyer. She said, “Ms. Moore, I’m a senior and I just don’t have time to change my major. I would love to take one more class before I leave because I know I’ll never get another chance to do photography like this.” So I got her in intermediate photography so it’s still black and white photography. She’ll be working in that same darkroom. But she wanted to do it. We met yesterday for the first time and she was there and when the class disbursed she said, “Ms. Moore, I’ve got something to tell you. I’m changing my major. My daddy’s furious. But I’ve never been happier in my life. Everything is different.” I wouldn’t take anything in the world for that. I said Alice, “just because your heart’s right, you don’t automatically become a photography major. You’ve got to apply.” She said, “I know, I’ll get in.”
Another corrupted youth. Has teaching, as a career, or the students that you interact with, had any influence on your work?
Oh, a lot. Because I have to think about things that I say to them. I have confronted the same problems that they confront in making photographs. I have been there. I’m still there. To formulate, to put it into words, to talk to them sincerely about things I have discovered that are meaningful to me, that make what they’re doing really worthwhile, that keeps me going. I have to communicate. I can’t just mull things over in my mind and loll around in silence. I’ve got to communicate. I teach what I do. To me, that’s the best world. I teach them what I do. It’s so much more meaningful to me to share with them the discoveries I feel like I have made, because I’ve done this for so long.
You know one thing happened that was so interesting to me, talking about seeing images all the time, seeing photographs all the time. I had a friend, she’s an art history professor, and we were sitting in there in the den. She bought a photograph from me. She’s a dear friend. She’s an old friend. We enjoy each other’s company a lot. I was looking toward that west window. There were curtains pulled over the window. But thesun was in the west so it was shining against the other side of that curtain. There was some Queen Anne’s Lace blooming just outside that window and there was a gentle wind blowing. That Queen Anne’s Lace would dip down and then when it would come back up, there was a shadow of it, in all of its intricacy. You could look at it and say “look at that Queen Anne’s Lace,” and then it would dip down, and then it would come back up. And the shadows were moving, of the leaves in the trees. And I said, “Elisa, look at that. Wouldn’t you just love a movie of that?” And she looked at it and she looked at me. And she didn’t quite get the picture. But, finally she did. She said, “that is beautiful.” I think that’s a gift from God. I don’t mean that I have a gift. But I think it’s a little gift that’s there. And there are lots of gifts that we don’t see. They just give us joy throughout our days. Don’t you think so?
That’s why I hesitate to say “I photograph bottles”. People want to put you in a niche. It’s just human nature. They want to know “well what do you photograph?” And that’s a hard question to answer. Anything. There’s not anything I wouldn’t photograph.
One time I got a teacher evaluation and one of the statements was “I now realize that there are many things that have not been photographed.”
You have had exhibitions of your work and you have sold some of your work through the years. But you have always chosen for your career to be teaching rather than as a photographer. Can you tell me why that is?
I started out teaching. That was the way I supported myself. In that journey I, thank goodness, stumbled on photography. I really needed a dependable income. So there’s a practical side to it. I did photography as a student and then, when I was pretty dependably employed as a teacher and then as a teacher of photography. So it worked out beautifully. I was going to do art of some kind. I had all my life. And through crises over my life, I always turned back to that art and found it very very important and an ongoing part of me that continued to flow no matter what other things threw me off track. So I continued with the teaching. A symbiotic relationship between my teaching, which I love, I know that it’s important to me to, semester after semester, confront new young people that are at a formative time in their lives, and that are intelligent and grown up, at least physically. Yet they’re growing, looking for themselves, looking for something, invariably. And so, I wouldn’t want to not do that. I wouldn’t want to give that up. But 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. When somebody says “what do you do for a living?”, I never would say “I’m a photographer”. 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. It’s a part of my life. It’s real hard for me to push selling. Occasionally someone will say “I want to commission you to do a body of work” or to come up with a cover for a book or something. Occassionally I’ll do that. But I don’t want to do that all the time. I see people that I’m not close to but that I know of, I know them. When they use their art that way, it seems to isolate them. They do a great deal of what is required of them to make progress in promoting themselves. It could be someone that writes stories, writes books, an author, a musician. There’s a performance but it’s an isolated kind of existence that just never has worked out for me. I never came to a point where I ‘ve got to decide that I’m going to succeed at this photography stuff. I never felt pressured to do that. I guess because in a practical way I didn’t have to. I don’t make a lot of money. But I love my job. And I’m allowed to teach – to keep this flow of new people that come into my life. And it’s very very invigorating. To me it is. And I don’t want to give that up. I have to look at that as the main thrust of my coming and going every day. The routine of every day. I have to honor that. And in the process, I do photography, as much as I can. You know personally, I’m in the darkroom with my students, doing my pictures. I’ll go in there and I’ll have some negatives I need to develop. So I go in there and work with them. And they’ll say “Here’s a picture of some bottles. That must be Ms. Moore’s.” And I love working in the darkroom with them. I have collegues that would never work in the darkroom with students. They would never share the chemistry with students. They would never ever do their work in the darkroom in the company of their students. Maybe the University provides them with a studio and with their own darkroom. I’ve thought about that and I could demand that. But I don’t want that. In fact, I just don’t have the time.
Are there other photographers that you can name that you particularly admire?
Yes. Julia Margaret Cameron. She lived in the 1800’s. In 1868 she was a middle aged woman. Her children were grown. She was affluent. She was well-fixed. But she was the head of a household. She had servants and extended family, and children that were of a marrying age early in her shooting. As I understand it, one of her daughters gave her a camera. Now in the 1860’s, that would have been quite a camera. It was what we call a view camera. Most of her work is done with an 11X14 view camera. She didn’t know anything about chemistry. She didn’t know anything about physics. She hadn’t had to learn that, as a woman. She was an educated woman. It was in the Victorian era so there were lots of literary references, lots of classical references. She started photographing people, did portraits. They were long exposures because the light that she wanted was in a kind of remote chicken-house kind-of an out building. She had them sitting out there for those long exposures. She was using a lens that had a little trouble with focus. Of course there was the long exposure too. So she was doing stuff—and she was up really close to the person. That was very out of the ordinary. That was very extraordinary for that period. Portraits then were done at a distance and people were sitting primly dressed to the nines holding props
portrait. Hers weren’t that way at all. Hers were packed with emotion—and they’re up close and you’re there and there’s a romantic solemness and occasional movement.
Has her work been published?
Oh yes. She’s famous. She had really great friends. Alfred Lord Tennyson and his family lived down the road. She photographed him dressed in a monk’s outfit, and it was his favorite image of himself that anyone had ever done. Hershel, who was a brilliant chemist that gave us fixer. He’s one of the early heroes in the evolution of photography. He was a good friend. So she had really people who encouraged her and taught her a lot. Her negatives were glass. Great big 11X14 inch plates of glass. Those precious negatives. But her processing was questionable. Whatever water she used to wash stuff had to be carried from the well. But they’re always frantically trying to save Julia margaret’s negatives. Some of the critics of the era poo-pooed her lack of focus and conformity—and didn’t like it, didn’t say good things about it. And, there’s a saying by Julia Margaret that I love: “Who’s to say what should be in focus and what should not be in focus.” I love that. That she was able to say that when she said it. Now, nobody would pay any attention.
Any other photographers that you admire?
Yes, I love the work of a man named Willian Christenberry. He grew up in Alabama. He’s my age. He photographed in Hale County, Alabama. He would photograph a store front or a little abandoned house. Then he would go back the next year and photograph it. And then he would go back again and photograph it, the next year. And you would see it change. In his early stuff he used some kind of little box camera. A little square negative with color film and it would have kind of a jaundiced caste to it. They’re just wonderful…they’re little things. I’ve met him and I’ve heard him talk about his work. He came to Athens when we hosted the Society for Photographic Education one year. He was our guest speaker and he came and spoke about his work. He’s done real well.
Yes. I told you about deaf Maggie Lee Sayer. Her daddy earned his living catching catfish from a houseboat on the Tennessee River. There was her daddy and her mama and her sister and her. When she was very young, her sister, while they were tied up to the shore, went to the store and as a favor for buying a certain amount of merchandise, she was given a favor of a camera. It was just a little box camera, probably a little Brownie or something like that. Her sister wasn’t interested in it but Maggie Lee picked it up. She’d put a roll of film in it and she’s photograph her mama and her daddy and the houseboat and the dingy that he used to go out onto the river. She photographed it in the wintertime when the river was frozen solid and then she photographed it in the summer. She photographed the fish that he caught. I mean there were some big catfish pulled out of that river in the 1950’s. They’re all black and white. She would get to the end of the roll and then she’d take it and probably the grocery store or somewhere would send it off and they’d get it developed in little prints. So she made a scrapbook. And they’re the most honest, touchingly beautiful, but she had a good eye. A good eye. And there’s a man named Tom Rankin who at that time I think taught at the University of Mississippi. Anyway, he’s from Mississippi. And somehow he saw some reference to her and decided he was going to find her. And he found her. She was in her fifties. And he found her in a nursing home. Her parents had died and there was nobody left to look after her. She was deaf and could do sign language, but couldn’t look after herself very well and her uncle was the only one left to make decisions for her so he put her in a nursing home. Tom Rankin found out where she was and went in there and asked for her. She came and sat down and communicated the best they could. And he asked her did she have any pictures with her? And she got up and went back to her room and came back with a whole scrapbook where she had put them in there and filled that book full of pictures that she had made and she had written in, I think, white ink underneath, the date and who it was and so forth. Just minimal but enough. And so there’s a book. Deaf Maggie Lee Sayre. I show it to my students every semester. Now Maggie Lee didn’t promote her work. She just was satisfied to do it and stick them in a book and keep it to look at herself. It was just a fluke of fate and great good fortune for the rest of us that somehow Tom Rankin got hold of it.
Note from the web: Tom Rankin is director of the Center for Documentary Studies and associate professor of the Practice of Art and Documentary Studies at Duke University. A photographer, filmmaker, and folklorist, he currently chairs the Board of Trustees of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. His books include Sacred Space: Photographs from the Mississippi Delta, which received the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Photography; “Deaf Maggie Lee Sayre”: Photographs of a River Life; Faulkner’s World: The Photographs of Martin J. Dain; and Local Heroes Changing America: Indivisible.
You have a great interest in history and particularly the Civil War. I’m curious why you’re so fascinated and how that interest affects your photography.
Well, I’m going to start with that last comment you made. I love old photographs. Not only do I enjoy making photographs but I can sit and look at old photographs indefinitely. Especially now that they can be scanned, and enlarged, so that you can see information that you could never see on the original. Photographs of groups of people. I’ve had a little snapshot, just a tiny little snapshot, oh maybe 3 by 5 at the very largest, of a family reunion that took place on Mother’s Day in 1931. It was up on Jerusalem Road where Nancy lives. My great grandma and great grandpa Durham were the hosts. It was a reunion that happened to take place on Mother’s Day. They were the same age and they were in their eighties. All of the family that still existed were with them. I was able to look at a scan enlargement from that little photograph and identify every person in there. My Daddy was in there. My grandma and granddaddy, great uncles, great aunts, cousins that I just knew as grownups were little children in that photograph and I enjoyed that so much. I think it’s because of the time that I came along, I told you that photography just wasn’t taught in academia until maybe the 1970’s and there got to be simultaneously a great interest in the history of photography. So when I was a graduate student, we were shown daguerreotypes and they would be taken apart ever so carefully. “Don’t touch it, don’t even blow on it. Be careful you’ll scratch the silver.” We were taught to really respect these early efforts and to learn from them, so I love old photographs. Besides that, this great grandpa that built that house over there was in the Civil War. Somehow or other, I can’t remember the details, even though I was practically grown, I would go into that house and his letters were in this roll top desk that sat where Luke and Julie sleep now. There was a big old roll top desk there. And those letters, 25 of them, were just on the top in envelopes scattered about, and the grandkids would come in and take one out of the envelope and read what they could make out, which was very little. It’s old-fashioned writing and the spelling and everything is real eccentric. It’s just really hard to read. One day I just went in there and gathered them all up and took them. Just took em, took em back to Birmingham. And kept them. Daddy made copies and I said “I’ll give my cousins copies of these letters”. They’re still in plastic sleeves in a notebook, the original letters. I transcribed every single one of them. And I got really interested in the Civil War because of that. I had a student one time that was from Athens, Georgia. This student of mine, we were in the darkroom and somebody referred to the battle of Antietum and I called it antie-atum. And my student corrected me, and I appreciated that, but I thought “I want to know what went on. I want to know about that war”. So I bought, one at a time, Shelby Foot’s historical narrative of the Civil War. I thought I would trust a narrative history by a guy from Mississippi. So I read all five of those books. I bought the first one and then someone would give me the next volume until all five were covered. Not only did I go through them, I took notes as I went through them. I was amazed. It’s like anybody that decides “well I’m going to learn about the civil war”, they think the things they learn, that that’s the only place they ever were printed down. But there is so much about the Civil War and about the history of that war, that you read over and over again. You see coverages of certain events and relationships and stories over and over and over again. So I’ve gotten kinds past that and then I belong to this Civil War Preservation Trust. They’re trying to preserve the battlefields. They send out maps and whenever there’s a particular threat to a battlefield which is always, well for example the battlefield at Gettysburg there was an outfit that was going to put a casino, a gambling casino right next to the battlefield of Gettysburg. And the citizens of Gettysburg overturned it. They kept that from happening.
Your interest really started because of the family information, because you started reading letters and stories..
I think so. Yes. And then a guy in Athens, a Dr. Stegman, wrote a book about the participants from Athens “These Men She Gave”. I bought that book because I wanted to see if there was any reference to the men from Watkinsville and south Oconee County. I looked in there and there he was, S.D. Hardigree. John Hardigree, his brother. And at the back where it told all the casualties, the dead, it listed John Hardigree was killed at Gettysburg. And his name is on that confederate marker in Athens. All of that made me realize that this was real. I never did want to join the Daughters of the Confederacy. They met on Tuesday in the middle of the day and I had other things to do and I just, I wanted to be with the men somehow. So Luke and I decided that there were lots of veterans down here. We looked at the book of Oconee Cemeteries. I haven’t come up with a family burying ground yet that’s not in that book. And we looked through that and Luke said “Golly there are lot’s of veterans”. So every Confederate Memorial Day we put out over 60 flags just down here. So I love doing that. It makes me see the realness of it. I guess the sacrifice. There’s one guy named Joe Braswell. He was a cousin of Great Grandpa Sam. And in one of Sam’s letters he says: “Joe Braswell died of typhoid fever in camp.” It’s just that line, that’s all he says. And when we started putting out flags, in Aycock Cemetery, there are three veterans there. And there’s a tombstone there for Joe Braswell. And Luke said, “there’s not room for this body.” It’s because he’s not there. He died in camp in Virginia and was buried up there. But they’ll put a stone for someone whose remains were lost with some members of their family. So there’s a monument to Joe Braswell. It just keeps on…connections keep on happening. Now as far as the civil war, I don’t know that much. If I got with somebody that was a real guru on the Civil War, I’d love talking with them. But I’d learn more from them maybe than they would from me.
Has that hobby or interest connected in any way with your interest in photography?
I think so, because I love to look for photographs. Photography was really important for the Civil War. People were shown carnage. It wasn’t a glorious brave parade. It was bloated bodies on the battlefield. But what got me going there was most of them were confederates. When you see “Harvest of Death”, it’s a photograph made by Timothy O’Sullivan after the battle of Gettysburg. It’s confederate dead on the battlefield. The reason is that the photographers travelled with the northern companies. Very rarely was the south represented. You see photographs of Lincoln in camp talking with Grant and the other officers, and they’re always Union. The only time you see southerners is a portrait of Robert E. Lee that was made after the war was over, and dead soldiers. But there were southern photographers. They just don’t come to us in our history books. It’s hard to find them. It’s hard for someone to have discovered them. So I’ve gotten interested in that. The photography. The history of photography is fascinating. It’s the history of our country. It’s the history of our culture. It’s incredible. And I own some. I own some very very old photographs. I own some daguerreotypes that I take to school and I take them apart and show them to the students. They never have seen anything like it.
When you teach beginning photography, do you have a standard talk that you give the first day of class?
Pretty much, but it’s structured by the syllabus. I go from that. That’s the structure of it. And then I branch off. I can’t talk any length of time without going on all kinds of tangents.
I wondered if you have any standard stories or quotes designed to stimulate their interest in what they’re about to learn.
I try to communicate to them how hard they’re going to have to work. And that’s real important because not only are they going to have to work hard, but they’re going to love it. And I do talk about that. I say “I love photography and I promise you that you will too. And when that moment happens, you’ll know it because you’ll think about it all the time. You won’t think about just it but you’ll relate it to everything you do. And I want you to do that. You’ve got to do that, so that your photographs will be personal. I want to see something I never have seen before.”
I want to completely change subjects. Tell me what is an EDE?
Alan Moore got lung cancer in 1985 and I continued to go to Italy. He had surgery. He recovered from that remarkably. He was going through radiation but he wasn’t laid up. He encouraged me to go on back so I went to Italy in 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1989. And then he had gotten some other cancers that were working on him and I just didn’t want to leave. Luke was 15 and I didn’t want to take him away. I didn’t go again until a couple of years after Alan had died. So when I quit going to Italy, that freed up my summers so I started going to Cumberland Island with a friend that had access to a cottage on Cumberland Island. It’s connected to the Carnegie family. The Carnegie family gave their holdings to the park service after a certain generation has died out. There was a little small cottage, Nancy’s Fancy. So we went and stayed two weeks every summer for awhile. I loved Cumberland Island. I loved the history of it. I loved the old houses that still existed. In those years we could still get in them. It’s different now. Beautiful seashore. Horses just showing up everywhere. It’s such a crazy history. It’s really easy to know about and to research. You go to the places that you know some things that have happened there. You know the families and there are descendents of those people there. They’ve been wrangling with one another for centuries. I liked all that. And a lot of black history which is to me the most interesting. The black people to me were the true inhabitants of Cumberland Island. They stayed there when it was not the season. They stayed there all year round. Their children were born there, they grew up there, they went to church there. And they worked for the white folks. It wasn’t all black. There were other white people that lived there, raised their families there and were there as employees of the wealthy families from up north that built those marvelous mansions. It was Paula Eubanks and Sylvia Knight and Laura Lee went several times. And then there were other people that would come and go. Sometimes Sylvia would bring family or friends. Sometimes Paula would bring family or friends. The group was always in flux, but always artistic people. Paula was the one in charge and that was important to her that everybody be interested in art in any way they wanted to be. Having said that, I realize now, maybe for the first time, how important that was. I would always take a bunch of clothes. We would drive down. And we would each be responsible for a meal. So we took foodstuffs. You couldn’t get anything on the island. There was not even any place to put your garbage. I’d pile in dress-up clothes. It would be just old nightgowns or petticoats or things that could be arranged to look very fine and sometimes quite romantic. Then we started photographing. I was doing pinhole – color pinhole. There was one series “Breakfast at the Jetty”. They were all dressed in white. Women. And they would start bringing things. There was one broad-brimmed pink hat that somebody brought.
And you would pose them?
Yes. Very early in the morning we went down to the south end of Cumberland Island. There’s a jetty where they were trying to control the wash of the sand. It’s made of giant rocks. It’s just a stone barrier that goes out into the Atlantic Ocean on the south end of Cumberland Island. The water occasionally would dash up on them. The rocks just inherently were dark. When they’d get wet they had a wonderful quality to them. So those girls were perched up on those rocks. Mary Leece had that broad-brimmed pink hat on. They all were dressed in white. I think Sylvia was pouring something liquid from a great big conch shell. Paula was sitting up higher than the rest of them. It’s just a wonderful craziness. That was one of the first ones we did and I shot a whole roll of film. We did this a long time before we decided to give it a name. We were just dressing up and I was making pinhole photographs of everybody. They’d do anything I told them to do. Every year. I don’t mean that I dictated to them and they had to do it. They began participating. Then they would come up with ideas. Of course nobody could see through the camera because it was a pinhole. So a lot of it we were winging it. It was film so the indoor shots would be about three minutes. That “Breakfast at the Jetty’, that sun was coming on up and I did some for as short as an eighth of a second that worked quite well because there was a lot of white and it was a clear day. It was so much fun. So we did that every time we’d go down there. I would have thought of something ahead of time. We did “Breakfast at the Jetty”. We did “The Little Lady Preacher.”
So when you did this series of posed pictures every year, what did you ultimately name those?
We were pressed to come up with something to call this thread that went through all of these. Not all of them were on Cumberland Island. Some were done in Italy. It was the same way. A group…a participatory experience that the photographer shared with a group of people. There was a lot of interaction –indispensible cooperation between them. I decided that I wanted to give a collection of prints from a laser copier to Laura Lee and to Sylvia and to Paula because they were in all of them. They were part of the thread, the continuum of these experiences. So we had to name them. And I forget who came up with it but we had to say it was an experience, and that it was extra-dimensional. It was imaginary. It was made up. It was like a movie. It was somehow based on reality but it was beyond reality. People were play-acting. They were dressing up and so forth. Extra Dimensional Experiences. And we said EDE’s. Oh, that’s wonderful. This is one of the books. This is mine. It says “The images in this collection are referred to as EDE’s and may be described as products of directorial photography. Each production depends on a collaborative participation between three elements: the photographer, the models and the very real energy of the places and things. Where we are. Sense of place. Each photograph was exposed in a Nikon FM 35 mm camera outfitted with a pinhole optic. This book is dedicated to Lu. ‘Have you ever heard of Cumberland Island? There’s a beautiful old house there called Plumb Orchard, and we must go see it.’”Not long after that, Paula asked if I could go to Cumberland Island. And I said “if I can bring Laura Lee.”
You have used a lot of old equipment and old photographic techniques, old paper and old negatives. What is your feeling about the current revolutionary technology that’s going on in photography and the move to digital photography?
I think it’s inevitable. Just like when photography was first discovered, somebody referred to it as “the death of art.” This was in the middle 1800’s. Then when George Eastman started making roll film and what he was doing was making it easier and more accessible to the masses, not because he wanted the common man to be a photographer, a good artist, he was making money. Photography has been to make money, from the git-go. It’s changed. That’s just part of the nature of the beast. It’s going to change because it’s based on technology. Now we’re at a time where we know about all this history. What concerns me is I just feel like people are throwing the baby out with the bath water. I can’t understand why, in order to embrace what the digital field offers, is completely incongruous with holding onto some of the earlier materials and techniques. Right now, the only people that are doing that are people like me. They’re artists is what they are. The artists were the ones that pushed for the discovery of photography and the artists are the ones that are having to change most basically with this onslaught of going digital. That’s my feeling. In my beginning photo class that I met for the first time this semester on Friday, something’s happening. They have to have a manual camera. For a long time I would warn them ahead of time. Friday I said “who in here has a camera?” Almost everyone in the class raised their hand. And I said “I mean a manual camera.” They kept their hands up. One of them said, she has a Canon AE1. That came out in 1975. It was a Cadillac. It had automatic programming. But you can use it manually. Even if the battery ran out you can still advance the film. She said she paid $50 for a Canon AE1 that was like new on EBay. Got a deal. So she started researching that camera. She said that they made two billion. Isn’t that something? And they’re all still on this earth somewhere.
But you do use some aspects of digital technology in your work, don’t you?
Sure. For me personally, I haven’t gotten to where I’m comfortable actually doing my shooting with a digital camera. I’ve got a digital camera. And it’s a good one. But I don’t use it. What I do is the scanning. I love digital scanning. It reveals information that the naked eye just looking at the original photograph could never pick up. It’s beautiful. So the photographs that I shoot with a super antiquated system can be contact printed and then that print, which is as good as I can make it in the darkroom can be scanned to a high resolution and that scan can enlarge it as big as I want it. There was a time where it would be embarrassing to admit that 8X10 was not big enough. When I was in graduate school an 8X10 view camera was pristine, was at the top of photographic endeavor because you could do a contact print and it would be big enough to exhibit. But now it’s not big enough in a certain way. And I’ve had people say, artists, that have looked at my work, looked at my contact prints, which are of a lot more integrity, they’re a lot more faithful to the original negative. But the digital print, I’ve been told, by people that came in and just were awed by those big prints, said that they didn’t think I was aware of the difference…it’s become a different photograph. It’s different because it just brings out information and quality that don’t exist on a contact print. So it’s not necessarily better, it’s just different. It’s like looking at a different photograph. I still have some people that prefer the contact print. In ways, I do too.
Are there any of the students that you’ve had through the years that have been photography majors that have gone on to successful careers in photography? And are there any that you are particularly proud of?
There are lots of them. Terrance Parker came into my beginning photo class in the eighties. He was a graduate student in Landscape Architecture. He was just wandering down the sidewalk and looked in the window and saw us talking about photography. He said “That looks interesting. I think I’ll go in there and take that class.” He never missed a day. He comes back to visit in Athens and he comes to my class without my knowing he’s there. He’ll kind-of lurk around the corner and listen to what’s going on in class and he’s a practicing landscape architect in Rhode Island. That’s where he grew up. That’s his home. And he’s married and has a little girl. Then he’ll come in and I’m always so glad to see him. He was about the best student I ever had. He will tell the students “I just stood there and listen to y’all and I can’t believe that there still exists where students can make photographs and then get together and talk about them and have a teacher that leads the conversation, the discussion”. Talking about critiquing. He said “when you get away from the classroom and all of the things we take for granted as University students. There are things such as that that you actually crave.” Someone else now that’s more recent is a guy named Charles Hemard who’s a native of Mississippi. He came up and wanted to get into graduate school. He’s now a professor at Columbus State down in Columbus, Georgia. He’s doing real well teaching photography. And there’s Emily Gomez that is a professor at Georgia College down in Milledgeville that’s just doing great. Both of those are part of the University system. It’s real hard to get in the University. I just rejoice that there are colleges in Georgia that are doing such a good job. There’s a young woman named Jeannie O’Brian that is a successful filmmaker in California. And I’ve got Beth Tribune that lives in Nashville that’s getting her graduate degree. And I’ve got Pam Peckeo that got her MFA at Yale University. And she is now fixing to take over at the University of North Carolina in the photography department. She taught for awhile down at Tulane I think. And now she’s going into a really nice job. I’ve got Tacara Portis who got accepted into graduate school at Arizona State, a very prestifious photographic program. She’s been there two years. She’s passed her review to continue to continue to completion of her MFA. Greg Foster shoots for Sports Illustrated. He’s had a cover on Sports Illustrated. It’s been awhile. One former student, her last name is Bush, she shot for Playboy for a long time.
Did you ever anticipate or think it was possible that a book would be done devoted to your photography.
No, definitely not. You know I always thought that some of my photographs over the years I continue to enjoy them. That’s a test. If it still holds up, like “Resurrection Morning”, I still look at that and think, the orchestra was playing, everybody showed up and was playing in tune. And it just worked. And then I think that well, I hope that maybe sometime some day, somebody will still cherish this. But the only way I’ve thought about it is feeling sorry for my children when I kick the bucket or don’t have any sense, what are they going to do with all my stuff. How much of it is just going to be discarded out of sheer frustration. Trying to figure out what to do with it. There’s so much stuff. But when y’all came up with this idea, and now, like I said before, it’s so possible. We don’t have to go to a big publisher and sell them on the idea. We don’t have to have to be completely positive that multitudes are going to want to buy it like the Harry Potter books. That would be crazy. Art books just don’t work that way. This visit of yours makes it really exciting.
For the person who sees this book, and has never seen your work before and has never seen your work before and doesn’t know you at all, what would you hope that they would get from this collection of work?
It’s a book of pictures. There are going to be words but the main thing are 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 and what they want to render in art. If it’s a photograph, then they have characteristics peculiar to the photograph. Qualities of light and editing so that it’s not just cluttered up. I’ve been doing that for a long time. 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. It’s not a body of work because it covers too long a period of time. It’s lots of bodies of work, lots of avenues, lots of educations, lots of awarenesses, lots of priorities. You know those long exposures of the flowers only, I have thought, I think I’ll do that again. Because that worked real well. I got a lot of mileage out of that and I still enjoy looking at them. So I’m going to do that again. No no no no. I can’t. I couldn’t do it. Because then I was discovering things and so I would get intimidated almost by what I discovered over 20 years ago. And so the sense of the right now involving that awesome sense of discovery of seeing something that never had happened before and that nobody ever saw before. I really, I worried about that for awhile. I thought “Why does anybody want to look at all this stuff?” But I’ve got kind-of a little slide show, I teach what we call special topics. They are majors, they’re advanced photography students. It also is known as the advanced pinhole. And they come in there really loaded with ammo because they have done photography for two years. They don’t come as innocents. But they come with experience. So they’re able to appreciate the simplicity of the pinhole system. I show them work that I’ve done in just pinhole photography. And they never get tired of looking at it.