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Still lifes of Appalachia: Asheville photographer Tim Barnwell spends his life capturing artistic images of disappearing rural ways

Wednesday, 05 October 2011 20:01

feature_barnwellThe man known for plowing his mountain farm with a steer instructed, “Berry, look at the camera,” and, sure enough, the bovine with horns that came up to the farmer’s shoulders turned toward Asheville photographer Tim Barnwell.

The moment was magic for Barnwell, who spent hours that day in 1981 getting to know Madison County farmer Collie Payne and his wife, Zola, in his quest to capture the special relationship the couple had with the land, their steer Berry, and each other.

When he returned with prints as a thank you for letting him take their photographs, he saw tears form in Zola Payne’s after seeing a photo of her with her husband. “I said, ‘Is there something wrong?’ She said, ‘No. In all who have come here, you’re the first to take a picture of me with him.’ That meant a lot to me that it meant a lot to her—to show that part of his life,” said Barnwell.

Since 1978, the 56-year-old fine art and commercial photographer has spent days off exploring the Appalachian mountains with his camera, recording an increasingly rare way of life. He has photographed mountain farms, tobacco harvests, people making molasses, river baptisms, fiddle players, basket-makers, quilters, junkyards, church homecomings, mill workers and old country stores. His portraits have depicted such moments as a father preparing to take his son bear hunting on Christmas Eve and a woman touching the hand of her 89-year-old aunt, who was in bed after falling ill.

Barnwell has met people who likely never traveled more than 10 miles from their home, and has seen the close connection formed with animals with names such as Red and Big Boy. He has toted his 4-by-5 view camera, tripod, light meter, lens and film in July heat up hills so steep “if you started rolling, you wouldn’t stop till you got to the creek,” he said. In one case, after spending time with a man named Amos Henderson on Lonesome Mountain in Madison County, he packed up his equipment only to see Henderson pick up a one-legged chicken that he had raised as a pet. “I dragged all my photo equipment out again,” said Barnwell.

His photos have been widely published in newspapers, books and magazines, and his fine art work has been in more than 65 exhibits and resides in the permanent collections of institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the New Orleans Museum of Art. His collections of Appalachian images fill three books and are accompanied by the oral histories he gathered.

For Barnwell, spending time hearing the stories of the people he photographs, which meant visiting sometimes for hours and on more than one occasion, was key to his work and part of what he enjoyed most. The people he met were accustomed to long visits, having lived the kind of life that if someone had to walk an hour to visit, he stayed awhile.

“I was always interested in what the person had to say,” said Barnwell. “There’s an honesty and a directness that I really admire. I have been fascinated with people’s abilities to be self-sufficient—to grow food, to raise livestock. They are very much in touch with the earth and the seasons in a way I think we are getting away from. There’s a connection with community. If they get hurt and are not able to plant, they rely on their neighbors. They might work on one person’s farm together for hours. There’s a kind of community-mindedness, and churches bind those communities together.”

Barnwell began taking photographs of people in the Appalachian mountains in earnest in 1978 shortly after graduating from the University of North Carolina Asheville and while working as chief photographer for Mountain Living magazine. Although his degree was in political science, his passion was photography. As a child, he was drawn to photos in Life magazine. He bought his first camera for $5 from an uncle and had a darkroom in his family’s basement. His interest in photographing life in the mountains was tied to his own heritage. Barnwell was born in Bryson City to two teachers, and spent part of his childhood in Franklin and Madison County, as well as in Greenville, S.C., and Black Mountain, N.C. As an adult, he and his wife, Kathryn, made their home in Asheville, where they raised daughter Callie, who is now in college.

The first mountain man he photographed for a magazine story was Byard Ray from Madison County. “I had heard him play fiddle, and I talked him into it,” said Barnwell. He soon began spending his days off driving in the mountains. “It was just something I enjoyed. I wanted a project I could do in a day’s drive. I would pack a lunch and get in the car. Some days you don’t find anything. Some days you strike it rich,” said Barnwell. Initially, he took a map and marked in colored pencil where he had been. Sometimes he would discover that what looked like a dead end on the map actually continued on into the mountains.

“I tried to get lost. That was when I knew I found somewhere new. I like having a view, getting on top of a mountain. I like the possibilities—so many possibilities—about what you can find in a place that may have been inaccessible for generations,” said Barnwell.

At first, he focused on landscapes but then gathered the courage to ask people he met if he could take their photographs. “I’ve learned how to talk to just about anybody about something,” said Barnwell. Some people wondered why he would want pictures of them doing everyday things. He tried to convey that he was trying to show a way of life, and would share some of the past photos he had taken. “I wanted to show something unique yet universal, what it means to be human,” he said. He would return weeks or months later with prints. “I always kept money out of it. I wanted to give them the pictures. In many cases, they just don’t have photographs other than a few taken by itinerant photographers. People just didn’t have cameras,” said Barnwell.

Peggy Harmon, special collections supervisor in the Appalachian Room at Mars Hill College, said she is grateful for the time he spent with her family. “Tim took a photograph of my parents and one of my aunt that I would never have had if it had not been for him,” said Harmon. “He has captured so much history that is gone.”’

Madison County resident Lockie Coates said her husband, Johnnie, had retired from working at his store when he met Barnwell. Johnnie took the photographer under his wing and helped him find some of the more “old-timey” stuff in the area—stuff the couple knew firsthand.

The Coates lived in the house where Johnnie was born. They got electricity in 1949—the year they were married and acquired a refrigerator, the same one still running in the house today. “My husband was forever glad to be with him,” said Lockie Coates. “He came to a homecoming here at our church. We didn’t have a fellowship hall, so we had tables by the creek. He also came to the baptizing. He made a picture of me and my cat, and I had a hoe in my hand in the winter garden. I had pulled up a cabbage head. I like that. I have never seen anybody that could do photographic work like Tim Barnwell. He can take a picture from our cemetery down toward the barn and house, and honestly you can see the barbed wire fence a mile away. He has preserved our heritage.”

Johnnie Coates died not long after Barnwell’s father, and the photographer was struck by the difference in his father’s military-style funeral and Coates’. “It was a different burial. Four preachers were there, and each preached for about half an hour. We went up to the gravesite. We took shovels and dug the grave by hand. It was an all-day kind of thing. There was something complete about that—very right. It made perfect sense,” said Barnwell.

In the mid-1980s, Barnwell began sending proposals for a book of his mountain photos to university presses and was universally rejected. After an exhibit in 2000, and partly as a New Year’s resolution to get the book published, he hired a graphic artist to help put the book together. He prepared the oral histories he had gathered to publish with the photos. His daughter, Callie, said she remembered spending time with him in the darkroom and picking out which pictures should go in the books. “He would tell me the story behind the picture, and he had a story for every photo,” said Callie, now a doctoral student at North Carolina State University. Her personal favorite is of James Henderson, a man who has a pack of cigarettes in his sleeve, a cigarette in his mouth and he’s reaching for a lighter from his pocket. “I love his face, the lines on his arm and the truck in the background,” she said. “Every time I look at it, it’s the one that draws my attention.” 

Both publishers to whom Barnwell sent the book made offers. He chose W.W. Norton & Co. because of the ability to print the books in duotone. The Face of Appalachia: Portraits from the Mountain Farm was published in 2003; On Earth’s Furrowed Brow: The Appalachian Farm in Photographs was published in 2007; and Hands in Harmony: Traditional Crafts and Music in Appalachia was published in 2009. 

He was purposeful to select black-and-white photos for the books that showed a kind of harmony with the land in which the people live without romanticizing what he describes as a brutally hard lifestyle. When settlers first came, they claimed wide-open tracts near water sources. “Tops of mountains often had cemeteries because that was considered unusable land. Now, that’s where people buy—mountain tops—because they can grade roads there now. Then, if you had to do that by hand, it wouldn’t be practical. Older places were built in harmony with the land. You considered the contours and which way the wind blew. It was very organic.” said Barnwell.

The arrival of the railroad had a huge impact on the area. Barnwell heard the story of a man whose child was sick and would look for the lantern in the window as the train passed his home. “He would always look up the hill near their house because two lanterns would mean she had passed,” said Barnwell. He also met a woman whose father fell between train cars and died when she was 16, leaving her to help raise the rest of the family. “You learn things that happen in the blink of an eye can have a profound effect,” said Barnwell.

That way of life is becoming increasingly scarce. In his own family, his paternal grandmother, Cora Barnwell, lived her life on the family farm and had 13 children, six of whom lived to be adults. Barnwell’s father was part of a generation that left to go to war, discovered the larger world, returned to school on the GI Bill and created a life away from the farm. “Many times on the farms, of seven or eight children, one would continue the farming tradition,” said Barnwell.

Today, he is struck by how fast change is coming to the mountains, and by the number of developments popping up. “I never used to see ‘for sale’ signs when I would drive around Madison County, and now there are probably a dozen up Big Pine Creek,” said Barnwell.

Meanwhile, Barnwell continues to share his work in exhibits and takes photographs and oral histories for projects such as a recent exhibit featuring eight people associated with important historic structures for the Cashiers Historical Society. “He just has this way of making people feel comfortable so when you see their picture, it’s like you really see them, and, then, to read their stories alongside of that is incredibly powerful,” said Lydia Doyle, executive director of the Cashiers Historical Society. “So often people glance at works and quickly move on, but with Tim’s pieces, they really linger. They read all of the text and look at the picture, and you can see them absorbing the person, those stories and that moment in Cashiers history.”

Barnwell sees his work on such projects and photographing people of the mountains as creating art. “It’s about what you have to say, how you see the world and conveying that to other people,” he said.

It’s also about developing a sense of place and connecting with the people. “They give me a sense I’m part of the community,” said Barnwell, who spends a lot of time going back to visit the people he has met along the way. The comment he hears most often about his mountain photos is “This reminds me of ….”

“So many people thank me for documenting this,” said Barnwell. “It’s something you take for granted that you don’t really miss until it is gone.

To see more of Tim Barnwell’s work, visit barnwellphoto.com.

— By Teresa Killian Tate

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