In collaboration with Slate's photo blog, Behold, we are extending the conversation with some of their featured photographers and curators.
The first time Ken Abbott visited Hickory Nut Gap Farm in Fairview, North Carolina, was with his daughter on a preschool class trip. Abbott had recently moved to North Carolina from Colorado so his wife could complete her residency in family medicine. He had worked as a photographer back in Colorado for 15 years, but because his wife was working upward of 90 hours a week, he spent a lot of time with his daughter, which didn’t leave him much time to seek out photography projects. But something changed during that visit.
“I saw it as an opportunity to photograph a beautiful place,” he said. “And not just wandering around to look for pictures I really didn’t have time to do.”
You will find some extra Q&A below and can read the original Slate interview here.
How did the project evolve from a series into a book?
Initially, I just saw photographing at the Big House at Hickory Nut Gap Farm (the former Sherrill’s Inn) as a fascinating and unusual opportunity. It was fascinating because of the history of the house and family, but also because of the evidence everywhere in the house of the depth and engagement of the lives lived there in the previous ninety years. It took me a while to know the stories and learn the history, but my sense of the extraordinary quality of that life, generally, was immediate, and I knew I wanted to get to the bottom of how it worked if I could.
A friend once remarked they thought the reason I liked photographing there was so I could hang out with the family in that beautiful place – just so I’d have a reason to be there. That’s not far from the truth. I never really thought of the pictures as a series. They were just a way of working out what it was that I was drawn to – this sense that I was seeing evidence of something important and true, as well as beautiful, and that I could photograph there.
The unusual aspect of the opportunity was how open the house was to me, a photographer. The tradition of the family over the previous fifty years or so was always to be welcoming, inclusive, and accessible. I love to tell the story of my first visit to photograph. I knocked and knocked but no one came to the door. When I’d finally made enough racket that they couldn’t ignore me any longer, John Ager, the owner, finally swung the door open and said, “Why are you knocking? Just come in!” I told him I’d like to photograph inside of his house and he told me to help myself! No further questions.
Needless to say they had no concerns about presenting the house, rich in its evidence of their very busy lives, as anything other than what it was. People ask me, now that the book is out, whether the family likes the book. They do, and it is because, “I showed the house the way it was”, without pretense.
So I was amassing quite a stack of what I felt were good pictures, but as I said, they’d been made with very little thought as to what they could or should become. Eventually I realized that along with that stack I was building up a responsibility to share what I had gathered. The family’s generosity with my nosy photo making needed to be repaid. That was at least part of why it became a book. Of course, I’m of a generation of photographers to whom books are the most important way of sharing and completing work so it was a natural progression.
The decision to make a book, naturally created the need to formalize my approach to the work. I had to decide what my book would be – a coffee table, photo based biography of the family and history of the farm and its pre-history as Sherrill’s Inn; or an artist’s monograph. There were pictures I needed to make in order to do either of those things. If a biography and history I would need to make sure I had pictures of all the salient material and also a good command of the history. I pursued this idea – an illustrated history – for a year or so, during which I researched collections of historical pictures from the farm and the Farmers Federation (which started there) and videotaped interviews with members of the family and community. But I decided that the family really wasn’t interested in having a biographer; and also, and perhaps more importantly I discovered I wasn’t really interested in turning my pleasure of discovery there – making pictures primarily to please myself – into the chore of illustrating a certain history, regardless of how important that history might be.
So it became a monograph. This decided, my project needed focus, and so in thinking about the pictures that meant the most to me, I decided I was primarily attracted to the beauty of the house, which was the legacy of the family matriarch, really. Jim and Elizabeth McClure had bought the old inn in 1916 and transformed it into their family home. Elizabeth was a painter, and had been educated in France prior to World War I, in Giverney, where she and her classmates could walk into the field adjacent to their school and watch Claude Monet painting the haystacks. Jim, her husband, was a minister from a long and distinguished line of ministers, educated at Yale and Oxford. They both had a strong faith in the power they held to help others, and felt a duty to carry it out, which was a legacy of their time and upbringing. This faith led Jim to found the Farmers Federation, which was an important agricultural and educational cooperative in the region. Elizabeth, the artist, proclaimed her faith in beauty, which she believed was essential to human spiritual as well as material development. The house and gardens at Hickory Nut Gap Farm are her legacy, really.
Talk about your relationship to the publisher and that influence on the editing of the book?
My decision to self-publish came as a result of a long learning curve about what publishers do and don’t do for photographers. Unlike in a book of writing, costs for a photo book are very high per copy, so typically the photographer or someone other than the publisher has to come up with a large pile of money in order to print a book. I did establish a relationship with two publishers in the course of deciding to self-publish, and learned in a slow and frustrating way that for this book self-publishing was the best choice. Working with the two publishers (one after the other, not at the same time) ate up several years of time, and interestingly, during that period of time, self-publishing sort of came into its own in photography and elsewhere. Technology was responsible for a lot of that but also the particular issues relevant to photo books, stated previously – the cost, and who comes up with the money. Ultimately, for me it made no sense to provide $30,000 to a publisher who would edit and design my book (and to whom my editing and design choices would play second fiddle) and then when it came out would also own all but forty or so of the books. Instead, I was able to raise about $40,000, and hire my book packager and pick the press and pay them (and travel to Italy so I could be on press with the book), and own all 1,500 when it was done.
Though I was warned by the irritated publisher I fired that my book would be disrespected by the academic world because it was self-published, I felt that for my particular book and its audience that would make little difference (if it was true at all). For my pride a prestigious academic publisher would have been a feather in my cap, but it didn’t make any sense for the book otherwise, especially in distribution, which is frankly where many small publishers fail.
Did you find the completion of the book to be a tidy end to the project?
Speaking of distribution, a “tidy end” is probably easier if you leave that up to others, but you might end up not getting as many of the books out there, and you pay a hefty percentage to them. We all want to believe that our books will sell like hotcakes. Mine has done pretty well, but I am not even half way through the print run and the pace of sales has slowed down pretty thoroughly now, just a year after its release, despite how successful the book and project have been in being recognized on blog sites and reviews and such, like this present opportunity. Turning that recognition into book sales is a trick, it seems. Maybe that’s because of who is looking at the sites – maybe people don’t want to collect books as much these days. For me books are still the ultimate form for photography though, and I love having photo books that were made to be held and appreciated as the finished product from an artist.
I’m traveling an exhibit of the project, too, and hope that will generate sales. I also sell books locally at farm related and arts related stores and events, when I can.
In terms of being an end to the project, yes, I think a book is a good way to end a project. You do need to move on and do new work, and though when I return to the farm these days to visit or restock my freezer with grass-fed beef and pastured pork I might see things I want to photograph, I usually don’t, unless I can feel the pictures will become part of more current work.