"The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." - Dorothea Lange

Sunday, October 05, 2014

the glamorous life of a photographer

Being a photographer. I love it and wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Being a photographer. Well, we’re all photographers now, aren’t we? Everyone has a camera in his/her back pocket or purse. So, maybe I’m not much different from anyone else these days.

Which probably makes me press harder and dig deeper.

Or maybe it’s just me. Jane Aspinwall wrote in my most recent exhibition catalogue:

“When I think of the work of Gloria Baker Feinstein, I am reminded of the title from
one of Carson McCullers’ best known novels: 'The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.'

The personal, never-ending search for truth and beauty is a large task. At this point in her mid-career retrospective, Feinstein continues to look at the formidable world and to see the possibilities it offers. Often, the beauty is small and goes unnoticed by all but the very few who dare to look closely.

‘Deep in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still,
But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.’”

This past Tuesday morning I sailed into Salyersville in Magoffin County, Kentucky. Didn’t know a soul. My brother had kindly, kinda hooked me up with someone who promised to take me around the hollers and introduce me to some folks I might like to meet and photograph.

The guy bugged out at the last minute.  Said he’d been robbed the previous day and was working to sort things out. He gave me the name and number of the County Clerk.

The County Clerk hooked me up with the Executive Judge, who promised to take me around the next afternoon. (The clock was ticking; I only had four days before I needed to head back to Lexington to observe Yom Kippur with my family.)

The judge bugged out at the last minute. His father had taken ill.

Shooting as an outsider (though I am from KY, I am not from Eastern KY) is a challenge. It’s a roller coaster of frustration and joy. It requires patience and perseverance. And some alone-time in the Ramada Inn lounge mulling it all over.

The County Clerk, who I grew to adore, suggested I go over to the drug store and talk to the pharmacist. The pharmacist knows everyone in town. (Yes, he does… his place was hoppin’.) The pharmacist was a great guy. We talked at length about my project, and he was really interested in what I’m doing. He walked me next door to the Radio Shack, thinking the owner might be able to help me.

The Radio Shack guy was awesome. His store was like the nerve center of town. He held court behind the counter (which displayed handguns, along with electronics) with the steady stream of folks coming and going. He, like the County Clerk and the pharmacist before him, kindly took the time to read my project proposal. He gave it some thought and then reached for his phone to call his good friend Vicky,

Vicky is the daughter of a coal miner and a retired social worker. She was born and raised (the youngest of eight kids) in Magoffin County. She knows a lot of people there. Within ten minutes she and I were sitting together at the Radio Shack. She, too, took the time to read my proposal. A half-hour later, we were in her car heading out to meet a family she knew I’d love. Vicky is a stylish woman – a ball of energy with a huge amount of compassion for others. She couldn’t have been nicer to me. We talked and talked, pausing our conversation only when it was time to step out of her car to greet yet another family she wanted me to meet. She was a tremendous connector for me (and a new friend).

Most of the people I photographed on this trip, though, were folks I simply met on the street. I’m a friendly and curious person by nature, and I love approaching people, asking questions (I get that from my father) and learning all I can about them: where they live, what they do, etc. My interest in people is 100% genuine; I must admit this serves me well as a photographer.

People in Eastern KY are cautious and protective. Those who live in the mountains have been burned time and time again. Portrayals of them in the media range from “hillbilly” to, well… “hillbilly.” I totally get that they don’t rejoice when they see a stranger coming toward them – especially a stranger who’s carrying a camera the size of Cleveland.

So, when people do take me in, I am so grateful and appreciative I want to cry. Really.

The whole process is kind of like a courtship. When I can finally put my arms around my new dance partner, I feel like all is right in the world. Like people really are kind and open. That our hearts really do beat as one. That we can break down barriers, celebrate our differences and marvel at our similarities. I’ve always thought of photography as a collaboration between the subject and me. When the collaboration works, I am truly fulfilled and uplifted.

It worked quite a few times this past week. Thank you to those who opened their doors and their hearts to me. I have many friends in Magoffin County now, and I hope to return to this very beautiful part of Eastern KY one of these days.

In the meantime, I’ll be sending prints to everyone I photographed - and my books to the County Clerk, the pharmacist, the Radio Shack guy and to Vicky. Maybe even to the pastor of the Pentecostal Church who sort of asked me to leave his service after a while (but that’s another story for another day.)


S. Sloane Simmons said...

Fantastic story. The rural Ozarks are like this as well and I have similar stories from my days in politics trying to get people to "let me in". I can't wait to see where your camera took you this time. Gorgeous story.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Sloan.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful! Marti

Unknown said...

Gotta love a Radio Shack with guns in the front counter... thanks for the story - your words paint the picture, even without the visual of the photograph. Fun to read, as usual! Laura

Jessica said...

Very cool narration of your experiences, Gloria. Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

After reviewing your work and your description you present such a realistic view of the lives of those you have met. I enjoyed my time with you tremendously and so pleased to get to watch you work. If you ever want to visit Eastern Kentucky again you are more than welcome to stay with me. I would enjoy your visit. I look forward to seeing your next book. Keep in touch.