Saturday, December 14, 2019

The Assignment of a Lifetime: Part II

Horse Laugh, U.S. Hwy. 11, McMinn County, Tennessee


Sorting Rock City's old file cards by states and within states by highways, I planned an itinerary for my first trip and began photographing at Sweetwater, Tennessee on October 24, 1994.  Over the next 18 months, stealing time whenever my studio schedule allowed, the trail of barns led my old Chevy Blazer nearly 35,000 miles to more than 500 sites in 15 Southeastern and Midwestern states.  Nearly 250 barns were found in 14 states, with only Michigan proving barren.

With 35-year-old, often sketchy records and occasional hearsay reports as my only sources of information, finding the sites was an endlessly fascinating piece of detective work.  Barns have burned, blown down, been bulldozed for highway construction and subdivisions, or simply fallen from disuse and disrepair.  Many of the largest and finest are gone. To complicate things still further, highways have been changed, re-routed, and re-named.

Often, the only way to locate a site was to find someone who remembered the property owner:

"Do you remember so-and-so, who had a place out on Highway 11 south of here?"

"Oh, yeah, knew him well.  He and my daddy used to go fishin' together all the time.  Good ol' feller.  He's dead now."

"Well, he had this barn on his farm, with a sign that said 'See Rock City.'  Here's an old picture of it."

"Sure, I remember that ol' barn.  Fact is, I helped him take it down, back around 1975.  It had got all rotten and falling down, y'know.  Weren't safe."

I also learned to take the information I was given with a grain of salt.  The people most familiar with an area are often the least observant.  In Robbinsville, North Carolina I asked a gas station attendant about a barn.  "Oh, sure," he said, "It was just down the road here, about a half mile.  But it's been torn down."  Checking for myself, I found his directions to the site were perfect.  But not only was the barn still standing, it had just been repainted and was one of the rare barns with "See Rock City" signs on both sides!

In those pre-digital days, of course, everything was photographed on film, mostly Fujichrome 100. I began the project with a pair of Canon EOS-10S bodies and one EOS-RT and gradually upgraded my equipment so that by the time I finished I was working with two Canon A2s and a 10S.  Lenses carried were the 70-210mm f4, the 28-105mm f3.5-4.5, the 50mm f1.8, the 35mm f2, and the 24mm f2.8, all Canon EF.  Probably 90% of the photographs were made with the 24 and the 28-105.  Exposures were almost always read with a Minolta Flashmeter III in incident mode. Color filters were used frequently to render scenes the way I felt them.

Each barn was also photographed in black and white. (Pre-digital days, remember?)

An average day of photography might involve driving more than 450 miles in 12 to 15 hours, and result in locating eight or ten sites, of which three to five might have barns.  Some days were better than that, of course, and some were much worse.  I spent a total of about 75 days on the assignment, capturing images in winter snow, summer haze, the soft light of spring and the clear light of autumn. Working the sweet early and late light in midsummer meant 18-hour days and not much sleep.

I began the project with some idealism, I suppose. Expecting to find prosperous, story-book farmyards, I often found depressing scenes of rural desolation.  Most of the barns were far from any farmhouse.  Many were dilapidated, some were overgrown with brush.  I learned to take whatever each situation gave me and tried to use that to make a photograph which expressed the spirit of the place

What began as the assignment of a lifetime grew into a labor of love as I came to treasure the dignity and individuality of each old barn.  I learned to see beauty even in the isolation in which so many of them are ending their days.  I learned that they wanted to be photographed in a direct, documentary way, without artifice.  They seemed to say, "Here we are.  This is the way we are.  Please let us speak for ourselves."

(Canon EOS 10S. 24mm f2.8 Canon EF lens. Fujichrome 100 film.)

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