I haven't published this photograph online before, likely because of the poor condition of the original negative. Photoshop has helped some, but it's going to take someone with more skill than I have to complete the repair.
But I looked at it the other day, thinking I would include it in a slide show, and the photograph brought back memories, as only photographs can do, of my earliest year in the area. Some of those memories are good, some bad, but seeing the picture also raised a photography question I've wrestled with throughout my career.
When I arrived in Western North Carolina, I viewed the place through adjoining filters of romance and nostalgia and this picture fills that bill. The angular man plowing with a mule into the sunset, the light on the peppers, the beginnings of mist in the background. The receding diagonal lines, the way our attention is drawn to the white shirt, the reins draped across the man's back. It takes us back to an older time, perhaps a better time. For me, this became my defining photograph of mountain life.
But I also knew something of the reality of this particular farm, and many others like it, and knew there was little romance about it. It was a hard life, physically grueling, financially insecure, and emotionally draining. And I could see in the landscape around me those small mountain farms and the towns that serviced them were dying, slowly being overtaken by modernity in the form of bigger roads, convenience stores, and more people working away from their places, seeking the mainstream.
I began to ask does the reality of life during that time make the romance and nostalgia of this photograph untrue? A fiction? Or, at the very least, not the entire story? Was I, in fact, misrepresenting an entire culture?
I've begun to believe all photographs are fictions. They have nothing of the smell, taste, and feel of the situations they represent. They are a momentary glance that turns a three-dimensional universe into a stilled life on paper or screen. Yet still, when we look at photographs, and the reality in them, truth is not so much our concern. Rather, we want the memories they evoke, always the good memories, those of romance and nostalgia, when life was more fiction than