(click on photos to enlarge)
I’ve been thinking lately about how Appalachia is shown and perceived. The Appalachian Mountains cover a large geographic area, but typically people tend to think of southern Appalachia when hearing that word. One of the things I’ve been grappling with is the limits and boundaries that define documentary photography. I expected to be able to see a distinctly drawn line, but instead I detect smudges and gaps. Sometimes the problem seems to be rooted in how a particular photographer self-labels his or her work, claiming it is documentary when in fact they have altered or manipulated the scene to some extent. A wonderful essay, “Icons as Fact, Fiction and Metaphor” by Philip Gefter, on the New York Times blog “Lens” a few weeks ago explored this difference and used some very famous photographs as examples.
There was never any doubt for me that Tim Barnwell’s fine art photographs in his book On Earth’s Furrowed Brow are the work of a documentarian. In the introduction Barnwell writes, “As I have traveled back roads in search of photographs, I have tried to avoid romanticizing this older way of life.” He states that his intent was to show traditional farm life “and its intersection with modern life.”
In my last post I wrote of how Barnwell’s series of “Sunday” photographs resonated with me. Another of the visual threads in his book that I strongly connected with was that of gardens. His photographs cued up memory images of the gardens I grew up with – the garden in the backyard at my grandparents’ home, and the one in the backyard of my childhood home which my dad planted.
My grandfather’s entire backyard garden was filled with zinnias, except for a narrow strip along the edge of the yard where he grew a few peppers and squash. After he no longer had my grandmother there to garden with, big harvests of sweet corn and beans and potatoes seemed not to interest him. He was more content with growing the long-blooming and colorful zinnias, which he placed on her grave every Sunday after church in summer.
My dad planted a vegetable garden each year right up until he died. He had grown up on a farm and although he’d spent forty years working in a factory, he was always a farmer at heart. He planted sweet corn, pumpkins, beans, potatoes, and tomatoes in his garden, which was located at the back edge of our property adjacent to a wooded ridge on Jacks Mountain. Each year he tried a few new things, such as watermelon and cantaloupe.
My younger brothers and I had chores associated with the garden. We helped with the cultivating and the watering, but our real job was the picking. Mom spent every August canning, the kitchen steamy and sweltering for weeks at a time. Canning jars filled the kitchen table and countertops during that process. My brothers and I spent hours and hours snapping green beans to help her prepare them for canning, and my youngest brother still complains about having to pick all those green beans.
My dad’s garden tools looked much like the ones in Barnwell’s photograph of Gladson Cutschall preparing his garden. Dad took meticulous care of his tools, and I have as many memory images of him carefully cleaning his tools after use before putting them away as I do of him toiling in his garden. Some of those tools had been handed down to him by his father, and now they belong to my brothers.
Saturdays were Dad’s gardening days, and he started in the early morning before the heat. In the evening he’d return to the garden to water it, and we all helped carry water, toting it in buckets and five-gallon watering cans. I can still feel how the soft lawn felt under my feet, hear the crunch of driveway gravel as I crossed it after filling pails at the outside spigot, feel the rise of the earth on the gentle slope up to the garden as the weight of those watering cans made my arms ache, and hear the dogs barking with excitement at the activity. The reward for all that work was the harvest, measured by jars of canned vegetables in rows on the shelves in the basement and the bin filled with potatoes to see us through the winter.
Tim Barnwell turns a compassionate eye on Appalachia. It’s his home. He’s artfully documenting what he sees, and it’s clear that he loves and respects the land and people there. His images of the farms and people of the mountains of North Carolina capture the same activities I witnessed in my own rural upbringing on Jacks Mountain in central Pennsylvania. Even though I’ve lived in the city for decades now, I still miss the rhythm of the planting and harvest seasons, and each time I visit back home I pay particular attention to the crops in the fields and what’s growing in people’s gardens. I don’t have any photographs of my own father working in his garden, but Tim Barnwell’s photograph of Gladson Cutshall preparing his garden for planting is almost close enough.
All photographs copyright © by Tim Barnwell, used by permission.
Top: Bertha Marler shelling beans, 1983. Marshall, Madison County, NC. Copyright © Tim Barnwell, used by permission
Bottom: Gladson Cutshall, preparing garden, 1983. Shelton Laurel, Madison County, NC. Copyright © Tim Barnwell, used by permission.