Friday, February 7, 2020

Who Am I?

The Frank Inman House, Martin County, Indiana c.1972
I went to school with the Inman children in the 1950s. In the early 1960s,
Frank was killed in a hunting accident and the family moved away.
The house, a clapboard-over-logs structure, was never again occupied.
Rolleicord Vb Twin-Lens Reflex, Agfa film


I began photographing in 1968 and for more than 25 years I photographed anything and everything that I thought might make an interesting picture. My commercial work was moderately successful; my editorial and documentary work somewhat more so. But there was no organizing principle to my work because I did not know who I was as a photographer. I had not found my "voice."

One thing that puzzled me though, was that I always felt drawn to photograph old structures. In the early 1970s, on a trip to visit my parents in the sparsely settled hill country of southern Indiana, I spent a day driving around and photographing the homes of people I had known in my youth. Many were abandoned; some even falling down. I told my wife later that I didn't know why I was drawn to do that -- I certainly would never make a dime from it! 

Surprisingly, though, I eventually did. In 1994, I was commissioned by Rock City Gardens of Lookout Mountain, Georgia, to find and photograph every one of the still-standing barns that had been painted with the white on black "See Rock City" message. Using their barn-painting crew's old records from the 1960s, I drove more than 35,000 miles over an 18-month period, as I could steal time away from my studio, visited more than 500 sites in 15 states, and photographed the more than 250 barns still in existence.

Rock City Barns: A Passing Era was published in 1996 and became an instant best-seller. Sometime later I received a letter from the well-known art photographer Maria von Matteson, who proposed arranging a joint exhibit with her and the great Florida Everglades photographer Clyde Butcher.

The show never happened, but one thing that Maria said to me stuck: she said "You need to write an artist's statement that defines you." So I did, and this is what I came up with.

My domain is the old, the odd, and the ordinary; the beautiful, the abandoned, and the about to vanish away. I am a visual historian of an earlier America and a recorder of the interface between man and nature; a keeper of vanishing ways of life.

As a commercial, architectural, and occasional wedding photographer, I've done a lot of things that don't fit within that statement. Yet, for the past 22 years I've known who I am as a photographer and have sought to work as much as possible, consistent with the demands of my business, within that vein. How well I've succeeded will be for others to judge, but I know who I am and what I want to do for as long as I am able.

2 comments:

  1. I appreciate this series you've been writing about who we are as photographers. Because I only started making photos in earnest in my 40s and then to support my road-trip hobby, I haven't given it much thought. But your post today makes me realize that a part of who I am as a kind of documentary photographer is someone who is photographing the past. When I make the photo it is obviously still the present, but the things I photograph are generally recognizable in the future -- and they will have changed by then.

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  2. Documentary photography is what we do, Jim. In many ways we are continuing in the tradition of Walker Evans.

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