My mother, Phyllis, steadying herself with one hand, hoeing with the other.
It’s a Saturday morning in April. I’m sleeping in my childhood bedroom in the house I grew up in. This strip of suburbia is known as Little Hollywood, which is an inexplicable name for a 1950s neighborhood built on an old strip mine in the coalfields of southwest Virginia.
I drove six hours yesterday for this visit, and I’m coming off some stressful weeks at work, a tired story in itself. So, I’ve taken this opportunity to sleep a little later than usual. Not to mention it was sometime between midnight and dawn when my parents, my brother and I, gave up the old ghosts last night and let the stories taper off with no endings.
When I pull myself from sweet slumber I look out the window and there is my Mother already working in the garden. This won’t surprise anyone who knows her. But let me describe the scene a bit more. These are the Appalachian mountains, and there isn’t a lot of flat ground.
Our house sits at the bottom of a steep hill, and for years my parents grew a very large garden way up the hill. Now my Mom has smaller gardens closer to the house, including some raised beds my brothers built her in a back corner. But today she’s working the soil along the bottom edge of an old rose garden that now shares space with radishes and garlic, and when she’s finished this morning will have a small patch of early peas. She works close to the house because the climb up the incline to the big garden feels insurmountable most days. She’s pushing 82 and her hips ache even when there’s not a storm on the way. In the heat of the summer she will still make the trek a few times, carrying soapy water to rid the tomato patch of stinkbugs, or to check on the potato rows my Daddy plants.
But this morning when I look out my window, she’s working this small piece of ground by leaning on her cane with one hand and hoeing with the other. Steadying herself.
There’s so much more I could write here, but for now I just want to think about her steadying herself. And express my gratitude for her steadying hand in my life.
This is one of the raised beds my brothers built. She uses it mostly for greens.
I was lost when I found this house. Headed east in North Carolina, toward Pungo Lake to observe the migrating birds, I missed a turn. I came to a crossroads, looked left, and there she was at the far end of a fallow field. Overgrown evergreens stood tall by the porch and it felt as if the house was trying to hide. I approached slowly, in part because I was sensitive to trespassing, and because I just wanted to visually absorb what lay before me.
The second shot was a bit closer, through raindrops clinging to a bush.
After hanging around the property for about twenty minutes I began to get more confident that no one really minded me being there, so I began to get closer.
It’s the pathos of things that draws me. I’m going to quote from a book called “Pouring Concrete” that my brother Ben “loaned” me a decade or so ago. “Zen Buddhists have a phrase – ‘the pathos of things’ – that refers to seeing the world in depth. It is the feeling we have when we look at something transient, perhaps a flower, and see in it something of the infinite. Anyone who spends time directly perceiving the world eventually experiences some sense of this pathos.”
Like many photographers, I’m drawn to ruin. It’s almost embarrassing how many photographs I’ve taken of abandoned houses. I even tried to make myself stop by creating projects that require me to photograph humans more.
But I can’t look away. The pathos, and patina. The intersection of transience and eternity. I like to imagine the sounds that might have been in the houses at one time. The lives lived out there. It’s mysterious and not mysterious. We come, and we go.
This barn sits on the bluffs known as “Sugar Hill” above the Clinch River just outside St. Paul, Virginia. It is located very near the site of a failed French settlement called St. Marie on the Clinch. So much history that we were never exposed to as children growing up in the Appalachian mountains. Kudos to the town of St. Paul for creating these walking trails and preserving the site.
This is Albert Rascoe holding a photograph of his Mother, Fannie Williams. Albert, as you can see is a Veteran, so I’m posting this in honor of Veterans Day. I photographed Mr. Rascoe as part of my ongoing portrait project “People and their People.” While it grew out of a deep interest in people with mixed ethnicity, I have since expanded the concept to include groups of people who are bonded by place, or by circumstance. More on that in later posts as I’m still hard at work on it all. There is an exhibition of the portraits beginning November 17th and running through December 4th at the Museum and Archives of Rockingham County.
Each time I photograph someone for this project I ask them to tell me a story about the ancestor they chose to include. Here’s part of Albert Rascoe’s story: He’s holding a photograph taken in 1967 when he returned from his service in Vietnam. His Mother is wearing a kimono he bought for her in Japan. Pictured is the car he purchased after he returned. It’s a 1963 Ford Fairlane convertible. Mr. Rascoe was born and lived in Hamilton, NC until he moved his wife and daughter to Raleigh in the 1970s. He stayed in Raleigh, until he returned to Hamilton in 2007 to help care for his ailing Mother.
He is standing in the school yard of the historic Rosenwald School in Hamilton, NC, where both he and his Mother attended. The Rosenwald School is currently in restoration by the Roanoke River Partners to be used as community center and interpretive site.
This photograph shows Albert Rascoe holding a school portrait of himself from his days at the Rosenwald School.
PATHWAYS TO THE ABYSS from Julie Williams Dixon on Vimeo.
A production by Art Howard in conjunction with the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. Follows the work of dozens of deep sea researchers over a three year period. My role was co-producer and story editor.
I carry a small notebook detailing locations I like, so I can return when circumstances are optimal to make a pleasing photograph. But, sometimes you just know that “we may never pass this way again.” At least not soon. So you work with whatever lighting mother earth is providing at that moment. No amount of twirling my high end polarizer was going to cut this light back, and there was construction and heavy equipment in almost any frame I chose besides straight on. I clicked the shutter a few times, not expecting much out of the ordinary. Yet when I returned home and looked through my raw images I was taken by this one. I think the light at San Ysidro was just what it was supposed to be!
It’s a simple phrase really. To All Gates. But the connotations are endless. In this photograph is my oldest son Rob. In this photograph he is returning to Berlin after a short visit home. In this photograph he is pushing an oversized bag to the drop off window. The large bag contains two of his keyboards which he’s finally getting to have with him in his current home city. In this photograph you also see that he’s got one of his guitars. What you don’t see is the checked bag with an analog recorder he’s also adding to his choice of tools. He’s never wanted more than he could move across town in a taxi, so it comforts me to think he’s willing to admit that somewhere is going to be his home long enough to accumulate some stuff. He’s a brave and adventurous soul, and I’m trying to be a brave Mom, stilling my heart for another goodbye.
He’s been away from my home for seven years. I thought Asheville was a long way until he moved to the west coast, which doesn’t seem nearly as far away since he’s moved to Europe. He’s a composer. He’s composed an interesting life for himself, with interesting friends, interesting work and interesting places. He creates songs and soundtracks where ever he goes. He is not afraid of the uncharted. What else could a brave Mom hope for? Does the photograph show that?
The photograph does not show the tears welling up in my eyes, or the tightening of my throat as I swallow the surge of emotions surrounding me. But still I raise a toast “To All Gates.”
A house is a house. It’s a structure. Sometimes a house becomes a home. And sometimes a house becomes at home.
I was the last photographer to document the Crabtree Jones house while it was still at home on its original site. In the Fall of 2013 I drove up the long drive to the house one afternoon on a crisp Sunday. I cautiously unlocked the side door, pushed it gently open, and carried in my camera gear. I stayed there alone photographing until there was no more light to eke out. The golden Autumn light streamed in the lead glass windows the same way it had for more than 200 years. The last rays of the day filtered through 100 year old trees standing guard all around the proud place.
Raleigh’s historic Crabtree Jones house perched at the top of a knoll hidden from site from most of the world even though just a few hundred yards away were busy shopping centers and thousands of cars passing by on Wake Forest Road. But the house could not hide forever, and it narrowly escaped the wrecking ball after the beautiful land it had occupied for more than two centuries was bought by a developer with plans for hundreds of apartment units.
The house was moved to a new location early in 2014, but with this collection of photographs I seek to preserve the beauty that existed in the way the light fell on, around, and through the house in a certain place, in a certain time, in a certain way.
I felt the house was speaking to me as I photographed, and I hope you might hear, and see, some of what she had to say.
In 2014 my company “words and pictures” marked 16 years in business. Sweet sixteen. I remember that time in life as being so full of potential, and I try to continue to see every year – every day – as holding great potential. I am so grateful for the work I get to do. This year has included writing and co-producing print, web and video pieces about rivers, deep sea research, environmental engineering, workforce development, controlling pediatric asthma, and retirement lifestyle options . . . just to name a few. I have also had the great fortune to photograph, interview and write about some amazing families who persevere against what would be overwhelming circumstances for many of us.
I am honored to get to continue to tell stories. Stories for the sake of story, and stories to meet strategy. This tagline works for me on both a business and personal level.
I combed my personal photography archives for a shot or two from this past year, and the ones that spoke to me did so because in each case they made me ponder the notion of “potential.”
This photo of three empty tables was taken this summer in Berlin when I was visiting my older son. The scene seems set for many things to potentially occur. Friends will gather, smoke cigarettes and drink coffee while making plans for later. Lovers will linger over a glass of wine. There’s so much potential.
This photo is of a girl named Hope. She reminds me of the potential for joy.
Remember your potential. Happy New Year.