Before moving from Virginia to Wyoming’s Wind River country in 1997, and the move to Colorado in 2008, I spent almost forty years documenting the vanishing people and landscapes of the Appalachians. Mine is a poetic and classic view of rural America, and I portray the land in a traditional and representational genre. Each of my museum-quality images is a projection of my artistry and my vision of the world. The spring of 2005 represented a major turning point in my life. I printed my last silver sulfide image. Far from being a sad moment for me, I have headed off in another direction using the latest in digital technology. Now at age 83, I am off on a new and exciting adventure. I now think Pixels rather than Silver Particles. But my view of the world around me has not changed. I am still inspired by the gentle, the noble and dignified, and the beautiful unfolding of life as I see it.
Yep, this is a far cry from the old lab processing days when I had my hands in the soup and often spent hours making one sepia- toned silver print.
With digital , you are in a totally new world. You no longer think in terms of silver particles; you now think PIXELS. And one must be computer savvy. Above all, you must become a master of many new processes; all related to the world of high tech imagery.
The image you see hanging in the background is a vintage silver print that was made back in the early seventies. This original was made to stand the test of time.
The custom-made canoe paddle to the right was another serious project that I took on back in the seventies. The idea was to come up with a better canoe paddle. This happens to be a double-bladed, multi-laminated design which locks together in the center . I was always thinking of new things to make and the same was true for my camping. My creativity did not stop with photography; that was simply the tip of the iceberg.
Mother Nature provides us with all manner of subjects. The trick is to recognize a potential image and keep it simple. I spotted this concept several weeks before I returned to the site and captured what you see here, but I knew in advance that I had to arrive on the scene about nine AM to take advantage of the bright lighting and shadows. Not only was I provided with a strong abstract design, but the contrast in colors added to the overall presentation.
Returning to a site time and again for the exact lighting I require has been a fairly routine proceedure for me over the decades. But you still to have be ready to capture the totally spontaneous moment as well. Spotting a subject within a subject often takes a lot of practice and patience. jj
This image is from a documentary titled, "The Last of the Old Water Mills." The story appeared in my new book on CD. From the Blue Ridge to the Shenandoah Valley and Beyond. 2011
During the early seventies, I recorded several old mills which were rapidly disappearing from the Blue Ridge Landscape. When I walked into this particular mill, it was as if the old miller had just walked away and left things as they had been during that final day of operation. I called this image, The Last Bag, because that it exactly how I found it.
Someone purchased this mill shortly after I completed my documentary and turned the structure into a unique home, leaving the existing machinery just as I found it. It was a most unique living quarters. It became both a home and a museum.
It was January 20 and the wind was blowing about forty MPH. This makes for difficult photography, but the lighting was bright and I had a heavy tripod and a steady hand.
In a case like this, I covered the camera with a clear plastic bag and allowed the lens to cool down to the point where the snow would bounce off the protective filter without melting. For the actual exposure, I would stand between the camera and the wind and quickly jerk the bag off the camera before making the exposure.
I can recall to this day that it was well below freezing and I was working in my down jacket and a pair of gloves with a slit in the palm to allow me to use my bare fingers briefly before they got too cold to feel the advance handle on the camera. I made a bracket of three exposures and that was it. The image clearly speaks for itself and the shutter speed of about a a quarter of a second was slow enough to blur the snowflakes against the trees.
I am a sucker for fall color and without a doubt, it is my favorite season. This image was made on a cloudy but bright day and the format was 2 1/4 Ektachrome. And, of course, I always used my trusty tripod for such scenics.
This image was made shortly after I documented the oldest operational steam locomotive in the country. It can be viewed on an earlier post. Firing #5 in a snowstorm.
The narrow gauge, gear-driven engine played a key role in the logging industry that dominated the area at one time, and the stairs you see here are part of the old paper mill which processed the logs.
The mill had long since been abandoned when I arrived on the scene and captured this image. Several years after I made this documentary, what was left of the mill burned to the ground. Perhaps this was a good thing because it was to the point of falling in and a fire saved a lot of hard work that would have been required to dismantle the large structure.
I often take a half hour or more to plop down in a relaxing easy chair to watch the evening sun reflecting off the San Juan Mountains to the south.
This particular evening was more special than usual because a large dark cloud mass was moving from the north and the ridge line was starting to light up. Until now, I had been staring at a blank canvas with relaxing thoughts of another kind. I suddenly came out of my own cloud and said WOW!
Normally, I'm not a sunset photographer, but this one had a fine image written all over it. And where was my camera? Packed away in my computer room of course. And where was my tripod? It was still out in the truck awaiting the next field trip. At least I knew where they were and it only took a couple of minutes to set up. This sunset just kept getting better.
I made several exposures as this event came and went, including a couple with the rising moon. I need to wait for a month or two and hope for another cloud mass, because I'd like to have the moon a little closer in to the high peaks, but in from the side a bit more. Beggars cannot be choosy, however, so I will present this one instead. I like it. The odds are slim that all of the same elements will be in place two months from now but who knows. I have beaten the odds many times before.
During the late seventies, I was exhibiting in the D.C. area when an African-American couple spent an extended length of time studying my images of mountain people. Finally, they asked me why I didn’t have any character studies of blacks. About all I could say was that the opportunity had never presented itself, which was true. But during the following year I filled that gap in my collection. I believe it must have been destined to happen. My travels down the byways led me to these individuals quite by chance.
One of my favorites is of Bill Whitlock and his nephew Thomas. The dog got tossed in at the last moment because he was out to get me from the start. He was chained to the corner of his doghouse, and every time he lunged at me the house would move about a foot closer. I was rapidly running out of space. Before I was eaten alive, I asked Thomas to take the snarling dog and wedge it between himself and his uncle in the doorway. The dog actually helped to hinge this image together. However, if you look closely you can see his teeth exposed; this was not a very friendly animal.
I always prefer to document people in their natural environment. Most are more comfortable in their own surroundings, so that choice allows for more relaxed communications. But, at the same time, the background must be taken into account when you are envisioning the finished image in your mind. I try to select a background that supports the portrait rather than one that might detract from it.
Whenever possible, I like to make direct eye contact with my subjects. It is not my style to have them purposely stare off at some imaginary spot in the sky with a blank expression on their faces. It is my personal opinion that direct contact usually makes for a more powerful image. Shields Carter is a good example of the philosophy. He displays the pure dignity of richness of character that I love to capture on film. Regardless of the angle or facial expression, he photographs well.
Carter is shown in the next post. Incidentally, I always allow a half to a full stop extra exposure time when working with darker skin tones. Those tones absorb more light so I make this adjustment to avoid underexposure. It becomes automatic with experience.
We kids used to call him Crazy Francis, but we did not say it in a disrespectful manner. Francis had a way of talking to himself as he walked the country roads almost daily, and you could hear him coming for a quarter of a mile. He became the neighborhood attraction in his own natural sort of way. You see, he always carried this big axe slung over his shoulder and the blade glistened in the sunlight. The local movie theater in Farmville (it was called the Lee) used to run westerns and horror films on Saturday afternoons, and at our ages it was pretty easy to let our minds run wild after one of those Frankenstein or Dracula flicks.
I was riding my old single-speed Sears bike the five miles to home one afternoon about sundown after a real thriller when I ran up on Francis on the back Hampden-Sydney road. He was looking up into the sky and chanting in his normal fashion, axe over his shoulder. I can remember swinging as far to the other side of the road as the ditch would allow, putting as much distance between him and me as possible.
On occasion, in later years, Dad would hire Francis to do some yard work for us. That was when I got to know him a little better. I overcame my fear of his axe and replaced it with awe at how swiftly and efficiently he used it to dismantle a tree or clump of brush. He never wasted a lick.
During the summer of 1980, when I was still seriously involved in my Appalachian documentary, I made a special trip to Prince Edward County to photograph Francis. An administrator from Hampden-Sydney College called and informed me that Francis was still alive and well, and that the College would like to have a framed portrait of him to place in its historical museum. I was living in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia at the time and realized this might well be the last opportunity I’d have to make a photograph of this local character.
It was one of the most stressful sessions I’ve ever had because I think that even after all the years, and my growth in understanding, I was still a bit apprehensive about facing this man head on with a camera. He did not have his axe over his shoulder on this occasion, and I detected genuine warmth radiating from within. I left feeling much better about an old neighborhood acquaintance from the past. Francis further supported my belief that we all have our own particular ways of connecting with the cosmos.
Francis Randolph died on Friday, January 17,1997. He suffered from no acute illness at the time; he was 83 years old. THE RECORD OF HAMPDEN-SYDNEY COLLEGE, Winter-spring issue, 1997 further states that “Despite students’ running gags to test Randolph’s mental acuity, says one alumnus, class of ’35, Hampden-Sydney’s permanent resident usually got the better of them, whether they knew it or not. “There was this tradition,” he recalls, “for the upperclassmen to tell the freshmen to offer Francis a nickel and a dime, and see which he picked. He always chose the nickel, and the students would laugh uproariously about Francis’s not knowing the value of the coins, just selecting the bigger one. Well, I asked Francis about that one time, and he said, ‘I pick the nickel because if I picked the dime, they’d quit.’”
“He was such a fixture that he seemed almost eternal; not so long ago, an alumnus came to visit his son, now a student at the college. Looking out the window, the father said, ‘That man looks just like someone who used to walk around here when I was a student; Francis the Axeman we called him.’ With a smile the son replied, ‘Dad that is Francis the Axeman.’ And so it was.”
Click on OLDER POSTS (bottom of page) to view more of my art.
Called Menhaden Boats, they used to be built of wood and powered by large steam engines. The first diesel came along about 1938. Menhaden means junk fish, not edible. But they are rich in oil and are commercially harvested for fertilizer, cat food and pharmaceutical applications.
In 1925, there were about ten fish processing plants located on Virginia’s Northern Neck, with Reedville being the center of operations. At the time of this writing (1997) there is but one processor remaining.
I made my first trip to Reedville to document these old boats in 1975. The East Hampton was the largest of the grounded wooden boats and for the locals it had become a historical channel marker. The remainder were sunk or grounded along a nearby creek. I worked mostly from a kayak and repeated the trip again in 1978 when the weather was better.
Much of the information I received about menhaden fishing was from Captain Wallace Lewis. He grew up on the boats and later became the captain of the Northumberland. He told me that once when he was a kid, he fell overboard during a trip up the coast to Ocean City, Maryland. Luckily, he didn’t drown. His mates called him the human dynamo because of his tenacious work habits. In the early days, his job was to keep the ship lamps lit. This was well before the days of electricity on fishing boats.
Some time following World War II, converted mine sweepers and spotter planes replaced the wooden fleets. Small metal runabouts pulled the nets and trapped the fish in large groups before they were pumped from the holding nets to the hold of the ship.
I made one last trip back to Northern Neck about the mid-eighties, and all of the wooden boats were gone. Cap’n Wallace said “the state came in and ripped ‘em with a clam sheller.” They were burned during 1983-1984.
For a larger and sharper image, left click on the image above.
This image was made while working for Radford University. Next to fall, winter is my favorite month for photography and everything else relating to the great outdoors.
This was a spontaneous exposure but I saw it coming, and no sooner did I get my camera up, everything fell into place, including three big smiles.
It is easy to make the wrong exposure when working in the snow, because the snow, by itself, will give you a false reading. I automatically go down about one+ f-stop to expose for the darker subjects. In a case like this it is the first exposure that counts. No time for bracketing or multiple exposures.
I have always had a dislike for motor drives because it is too easy to use it as a crutch. If I have time for two or more exposures with a moving subject, I will use my right finger to push the release button however many times it is required to achieve my goal. Again, I think in terms of simplicity and gut feeling. If the scene feels right, make the exposure. And keep your eyes focused on the subject.