Backroads photographs document a unique and disappearing time and place

It’s nearing the end of October, the weather is cooler, and the air has that distinctive feel of Autumn, that magical time of year when leaves change color and long-ago memories of this special season linger in my thoughts as I ponder the passage of time. Perhaps no season inspires these wistful, almost sad refections on time passing as does Fall. I know that’s certainly true for me.

It was also in September and October over decades that I took took many memorable day trips along country roads, photographing old houses, barns, fields and woods, and many examples of vernacular building styles and architecture.

But last Autumn with the pandemic was a lost time for doing just about anything, pre-vaccine, especially for someone of my age (69 at the time). I’ve greatly missed the long drives I used to take out in the countryside for hours at a time, even when I was caregiving and working full time. I had home aides to assist me with Mom, and so on weekends if the right conditions aligned, I’d take off. I felt temporarily free and it was even a bit exhilarating. But I haven’’t done anything like that in several years or longer. However, even though I have a lot on my mind now, I might just take one of those trips soon. It will be like old times, and therapeutic as well..

After growing up in the suburbs of New Orleans, and following long years of familiarity with the big city of my youth, I was eager to explore the countryside of South Carolina when I left New Orleans for good in 1973 to live, continue my education, and work in that state where my ancestors are from. I was drawn home, so to speak. In fact, I have lived for years now around the corner from the 19th century house where my great grandparents lived. I took naturally to the landscapes of this my ancestral state.

I have been photographing vernacular structures and rural landscapes since that Autumn in 1973. Two of my three solo photography exhibits have featured those photographs, one black and white, the other color. With some friends that Fall, and then in years to come, I’d take to the backroads, photographing the countryside and the emblematic structures, buildings and main street architecture that belong now to a vanishing age. Those photographic explorations gave me a keener appreciation and understanding of life in rural and small-town South Carolina.

In a journal entry dated August 10, 2000, I wrote this:

<i>Ever since I began taking pictures, I have been fascinated, intrigued, and humbled by the sight of once-proud houses — whether sharecropper cabins, farm houses, or stately, columned mansions — abandoned in grown-over yards, lots and fields, left to decay in sandy, hard-red soil. They always seemed so forlorn, longing for their glory days when children ran and played in front yards, and tall pines whispered in the wind on summer afternoons.

I have often photographed these structures, some nearly covered with kudzu and other vegetation, porches crumbling, windows glassless, tin roofs blown off in wind storms. Many others were in good condition, faithfully preserved and maintained by their current owners. There is always, without fail, a sense of mystery and wonder. What was this place like once? Who lived there? What happened?

Sometimes I am driven to write about those places. When I came across a huge house abandoned and nearly invisible among vines and creepers near a remote country crossroad Sumter County, South Carolina, in 1991, I had my camera with me to photograph it. Here is part of what I wrote back then in a newspaper column:</i>

“This Christmas season I look closely at the picture I took one cloudy December morning recently, and try to see not just weathered ruin, ghostly and deserted, but the house in its finest days when the now huge oak trees were a bit less imposing, but stately nevertheless, and brush and undergrowth did not obscure the magnificent porches and railings on both the first and second floors.

On a cold Christmas day in 1910, holly and wreaths probably graced the doors, and single candles made illuminated the windows. Family came from miles around in horse-drawn buggies and carriages for Christmas dinner in a festively decorated decorated dining room. Fires crackled in fireplaces providing warmth and cheer, and children rushed about showing off their new toys, wagons and clothes.

Not many cars go by today, and it’s easy to miss from the road, but those massive oak trees still stir the imagination. One can be certain the house still stirs memories of living former residents and their descendants. A photographic record is good, but a still-living house endures, aged, weathered and in it’s last year’s, still stirring the imagination of curious passerby.”

I still enjoy as much as ever photographing Fall scenes in the countryside, although now I am primarily interested in the larger landscapes that contain places and structures similar to ones I once photographed.   Something about continuity of aim and purpose over a lifetime.  My photographs from years ago remain as a testament to the passion I have for black and white and color documentary photography, and they will always stir my interests as I continue to study and reflect on such photographers as Walker Evans, Marion Post Walcott, Dorothea Lange and the other great photographic artists of the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s, who documented the Great Depression. Their work will endure forever, and greatly influenced my own photographic art.

These photographs were taken during two backroads day trips in south central South Carolina in 2013:

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October 23, 2021

Living as I do so close to the border, these photographs could have been taken on the backroads leading to Aiken, Edgefield, Abbeville, and other small towns on my side of the state…

October 25, 2021

I can relate to so much of what you have written here. I love structures also, but I haven’t put a focus on them much. You write very well. I enjoyed your photos. I’ve been struggling, but I want to get back into my photo work, even if nothing pans out but having a hobby. I used to have a flicker. My work has been many things. I like finding design in everything including architecture, mostly city buildings. Old houses are quaint. I love looking at them wherever I travel. I find meaning in nature photography. Autumn is my favorite season. Thank you for sharing and for inspiration.