Thursday, October 18, 2007

A look back at a beginning

Way back in 1976, when I returned to Asheville after my last stay in British Columbia, I faced the same problem I've heard many more recent arrivals complain of: it was hard to find meaningful work. So I worked as a baker in a now long-gone cafeteria (thankfully, I'd learned the trade in a small bakery in B.C.) and did various other odd jobs (some of them odd indeed) while I tried to find my first "real" job, one that would open possibilities that I might want to pursue as a "career". It finally came the next year, when UNCA hired me to replace Charles McLarty, who was leaving to return to school, as photographer for the Asheville Area Photographic Project.

Over the next eighteen months or so I took hundreds of shots of people and places of note in Asheville, and occasionally ranged out to surrounding towns, like Burnsville and Weaverville, either on my own, usually in search of a specific location someone had said I just had to photograph, or in the company of Dr. Lou Silveri, who was conducting an oral history project that summer. I had license to shoot pretty much whatever caught my eye.

It was a great way for me to ground myself in my new home, and some of the images I framed along the way, as I roamed the hills with my trusty Pentax Spotmatic II, have apparently been useful enough to others taking a look at that era that the Special Collections department of UNCA's Ramsey Library has now put them online.

The files are currently presented in the admirably compressed but not widely adopted Dejavu format; you'll need a viewer plugin for your browser to see them. Sorry. I know they've switched to the .jpg format for more recent collections.

The plugin does have a tool that exports the images into bitmats, and it's simple to convert bitmaps to compressed .jpg files with almost any decent viewer ... just sayin'.

The online presentation doesn't note which photos were taken by McLarty and which by me, but any shot in 1976 were McLarty's. He had a great eye, and was a superb printmaker. It took me months to develop darkroom techniques that yielded prints even almost as good as his. We both shot "black and white"; I loaded my own film canisters from bulk spools of Kodak Tri-X, and I think Charley did the same.

The website provides this history of the project:

In January 1976, the Center proposed a photographic survey of Asheville to be completed by a photographer hired with CETA money. Charles McLarty worked in this capacity from the Spring of 1976 to the Spring of 1977 and was then replaced by Jefferson Davis, another CETA sponsored-photographer who worked for the Center until May 1978.

The original design for the project included a photographic survey of Asheville in 1976, especially those areas destined for demolition or change. Also included was a record of Asheville's homes and street scapes which in some way would reflect the mood and feeling of the city in the mid-1970's. The photographers were also able to photograph individuals included in the Center's oral history collection and to shoot those areas mentioned in various studies housed in the Center.

As the project got under way, the photographers also suggested other themes, the most represented of which in this collection was a review of people at work, especially in occupations that were unusual or disappearing. Thus, one set of photographs depicts sorghum manufacture.

Those were shots I made of my uncles Wayne Landis and Ben Morgan at Wayne's McDowell County farm; sadly, they're not yet in the online collection.

In the Spring of 1978 the State Department of Archives dispatched a photographic team to Asheville to record the downtown area in preparation for a historical properties inventory. Because this project obviated the need for continuation of the project, all field work was stopped and emphasis was placed instead on copy work of existing collections acquired by the Center.

My job, in other words, became lab tech, instead of photographer. That's not what I'd signed on for, and I'm sure I let anyone within earshot know (politely, of course) that I wasn't exactly happy with the change. Fortunately, the CETA program needed a photographer to document its various projects, and I was able to arrange a transfer to the program staff.

But that's a story for another day.


The photo features architectural detail from the Grove Arcade building in downtown Asheville; click on it for a larger version.

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