. . .I can use that well-worn phrase about time and place with some degree of knowledge and certitude. Another trip for Farm Aid, this time to a place as different from my spot as any could possibly be. The openness of the sky is unsettling to one used to the mountain's embrace. The waving wheat, and fields ready for planting, stretching as far as my eye could see. The wind, steady and stiff, chilling on a not-so-cold morning walk. Enough talk of Dorothy to keep us glancing at the sky. Combined, on leaving, a sense of getting out of Dodge just in time.
April 14, 1865 - certainly among the most horrific days in our nation's history - the day our greatest President, Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated. I have often wondered how different, i.e. better, our country might be had he lived out his second term.
April 14, 1980 - one of the best days in my life - the day my son, Benjamin Robert, was born. Child #1. 35 years old now and I like the man he has become.
I will be leading a workshop at Doe Branch Ink, just off of Big Pine, in Madison County, NC, from June 14 to June 20. The workshop is open to anyone, but would be especially interesting for both writers and photographers. The setting is ideal - quiet and stunningly beautiful, with perfect hosts and good grub. You will sleep well and be stimulated to be creative.
People have asked what I plan to do, or teach at this workshop. My work is largely about place and man's response to particular spots in the world. It is also about time and how time affects those places and communities. I tell those stories about those subjects with pictures and words. I find myself consistently fascinated by the joining of the two mediums. How words can complement a photograph through an extended caption, or a poem, or with no words at all. And how an image can inform a story with documentary fact, or an individual point of view, or surreal renderings of reality. I think about this stuff a fair amount, as sick as that may sound.
My hope for the workshop is for a healthy ongoing discussion and that participants come away with new ideas, new work, and a new appreciation of time and place.
For whatever you’re doing, for your creative juices, your geography’s got a hell of a lot to do with it. You really have to be in a good place, and then you have to be either on your way there or on your way from there. Neil Young, 2012 interview with NY Times reporter David Carr
Returning home from trips, no matter the direction I’m driving from, there are particular spots along the highways where I sense the change. Something – the smell, the look, the taste in the air – signals “I am home.” I’m back where I can most be myself, my most creative self, my easiest self. Back to the place I know best, the place that knows me best.
It’s different when I leave. My longing is immediate and palpable for a place I’m already missing, even as the mountains recede in my rear-view mirror. But the expanse of the road ahead, new people and new places, they, too, have allure, especially when informed by my spot in the mountains and the knowledge I will soon return there.
Traveling in eastern North Carolina with Farm Aid, it's easy enough to notice the soil down here near Tarboro is unlike ours in the mountain west of the state. On North Carolina's coastal plain, the dirt is rich and deep and loamy, teeming with nutrients, both present-day and millennia old. It's not unusual to find bits of seashells or even maritime fossils from a time when the ocean covered the whole region. Fields are big and flat enough to lay a level to them. One farmer we visited asked me, “Do you have many rocks up your way?”
“Rocks,” I answered. “That’s what we grow best in the mountains. Rocks. You can plow a field in an hour or two and then spend half a day hauling rocks to the edge of it. Disc it the next day, get a little rain on it, and you’ve got a whole new crop, without adding any fertilizer.”
“I wouldn’t know what to do with land such as that,” he said.
When I was a young boy my family would take trips to the beach in Florida. My father insisted we leave early in the morning to beat the DC traffic and the afternoon heat of southern summers without air-conditioning. We would drive on Highways 1 and 301 through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.
I liked riding shotgun and my memory is of my face pressed against the side window, making imaginary pictures of the blurred, yet coherent landscape with a simple blink of my eye; images fixed in a particular spot while seamlessly moving through it.
Traveling through eastern North Carolina this past week, on Highway 111 between Tarboro and Oak City, documenting the lives of farmer advocates for Farm Aid, my mind drifted back to those drives almost sixty years ago. What’s changed since then? And what hasn’t? What remains familiar? And what is now foreign? The sky, the smell, and the open and expansive topography are as if they’ve stood still in time, the same as I remember. But those constants are but a background to a new and changed landscape with fewer people, boarded up towns, and huge farms, one unlike my memory of a faded past.
Madison County native Roger Howell has given our county an extraordinary gift. He has recorded over 550 fiddle tunes, with more to come, at the Ramsey Center at Mars Hill University, which will be archived and available for students, the general public and everyone interested in old-time music. Thank you, Roger, and for the University and the Blue Ridge Heritage Center for making this possible.
87 year old Ralph Lewis at the Fiddlers of Madison County show at
the Madison County Arts Council this past Saturday.
11 year old Rhiannon Ramsey, the youngest of Madison's fiddlers.
There were many times in my career, applying for grants or fellowships, when I would make color transparencies of my black & white prints. The slides offered the opportunity to blow the images up to giant size on the wall or screen and also to throw the projected image in and out of focus to see what the abstraction might resemble. I loved watching the picture move from sharp to blur and back sharp again, the scene changing from two-dimensional reality to streaks of light and dark.
These screen shots I've been posting the last few weeks are similar to the others in their desire to leave the realm of the known.
"It took place where?" he asks.
"I can''t rightly remember," I say back at him.
"How could you not? It seemed so vital at the time."
"Yes, important words were spoken there. Words like,
'Time,' the great arbitrator."
I open the outside door to my studio
and the door to my pants next. I
pull out my pecker and piss
into the howling zero-degree blizzard.
Could you ever, possibly feel more alive?
I make a picture. . . and close the door.
Allie, PawPaw, 2012.
"Photography," people have said since its invention, "is no more, or no less, than painting with light."
"Ah," I thought, not so many weeks ago, "I understand that statement differently than I once did."
Wanda Faye Cooper Stilwell
Leslie's 82 year old mother Faye moved in with last this past July. She had lived by herself for the last fourteen years since her husband had died, but could clearly not continue to do so. She has dementia and Leslie is her only child. She is clearly not ready for institutional care so our choices were limited. Her daily presence in our home and in our lives has certainly changed our lives, but I take great solace in knowing that inspiration often comes from the most unexpected of sources.
I've been gone.
I'm coming back slowly.
Thank you for your patience.
Kate, as most of you know, is my daughter, "Child #2" in family speak. Now, everyone believes their child is the most incredible child ever was, and that's how it should be. But I just have to say that Kate is truly extraordinary and I couldn't be prouder of the young woman she has become.
Rob will be at Pink Dog Creative, 348 Depot Street from noon until 6 pm on Friday, December 5. Nothing formal or planned, only an interest in having people stop by to talk about pictures and solve the world's problems.. Hope you can stop by and visit.
Unquestionably the most difficult photograph I've ever made in a career that includes many emotional images. Our daughter is amazing and strong. To be with her Aunt in her last days. I am in awe. We are so very fortunate.