(click on photos to enlarge)
On a morning in April 2008 when my husband and I were out photographing in Roanoke, Virginia’s Historic City Market District, we stopped to browse in a bookstore there. Cantos Booksellers is a small independent bookstore, the kind with creaky floors and a few chairs among the shelves where you can sit to leisurely page through a book. The cover of one book in particular caught my eye that day – Tim Barnwell’s On Earth’s Furrowed Brow: The Appalachian Farm in Photographs.
I opened Barnwell’s book to find gorgeously reproduced black-and-white images of the hill farms and people in the mountains of North Carolina. These photographs struck such an emotional chord with me that they actually brought tears to my eyes. The photograph that started the waterworks – not the bawling out loud kind, but the throat-tightening silent tears sliding down the face kind of crying – was an image of churchgoers crossing a stream to get to the Sunday worship service. I closed the book and looked around to see if anyone had caught me crying, and then took the book to a more secluded area of the store where I found a seat behind a row of shelves before opening the book again. I turned the pages slowly, examining the images: tobacco fields and churches, farmers and hill farms, homey kitchens and gardens, and front porches that look as inviting as the general stores where folks stop to sit a spell and talk to their neighbors. I sat a long time with that book, caught up in a familiarity that harkened back to my own growing up among rural hill farms in a different part of the Appalachians.
It’s all there in each image, everything that makes a good photograph and a good story – the interesting perspective and light, the artful composition, the sense of place, and interesting characters. There is even an underlying sense of tension that the peaceful scenes depicted are about to change, evoking a sense of loss. And just as in any good story, there are many threads woven together to make the whole. We all bring our own stories to what we read and see, filtering it through our own experience, and one of the threads that stood out for me was Barnwell’s series of “Sunday” images.
The Sundays of my own growing up years were different from the Sundays of today. Sunday mornings were for churchgoing, and Sunday afternoons were for visiting. And somewhere between the morning church service and evening twilight was Sunday family dinner, which usually involved several generations of extended family members. It was the day when we connected with our larger family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Stores were closed on Sunday and no business was conducted except at gas stations, restaurants, and certain markets where you could buy a Sunday newspaper and an emergency quart of milk or loaf of bread. No one even considered doing yard work or chores (with the exception of cooking and dishwashing). The house had been cleaned and there was always some sort of special treat ready in the kitchen to bring out for whoever might stop by. The women tended to gather around the kitchen table, the men in the living room in front of the TV. And in warm weather the front porch swing and the backyard picnic table were the favored spots. At the edges of it all were the children who ran in and out of those kitchens and living rooms, played in the yards and on the porches, listening to and absorbing the stories the adults told.
Times and demands change, and the world moves much faster now, which makes me appreciate Tim Barnwell’s photographs all the more. He’s captured a glimpse of that slower pace and older ways that have long vanished in most places, documenting it through the photographs and the oral histories in this book. You can see more of his images from both of his books at his Website gallery. He has a new book coming out this fall which I’m looking forward to seeing, and he may just drop by here to do a guest post then.
All photographs copyright © by Tim Barnwell, used by permission
Top Photo: Crossing Creek to go to church, 1986. Grapevine, Madison County, NC. Copyright © by Tim Barnwell, used by permission
Middle Photo: Old church in tobacco field, 1981. Big Laurel, Madison County, NC. Copyright © by Tim Barnwell, used by permission
Bottom Photo: Ernest Teague and Ernest Rector, Sunday visit, 1983. Marshall, Madison County, NC. Copyright © by Tim Barnwell, used by permission