For two years, Jerry Park traveled Tennessee with an inexpensive camera and a great eye for the stories a picture can tell.
You can enjoy the results of his journey by tucking away into a space in the center of our city—where cranes populate and extra commuter times can frustrate. An exhibit of Park’s work, Slow Roads Tennessee: A Photographic Journey Down Timeless Byways, opens December 5 (during the Art Crawl) at The Arts Company on Fifth Avenue.
Park describes the inspiration for his current project in a manner as vivid as his photographs:
“I grew up outside of Asheville, N.C., and a good day for me as a kid was when we’d pile in the car after church and Sunday dinner and go for a drive in the country. I would beg to head down dirt roads. A stream running alongside was a bonus. I believed that adventure awaited just around every bend.
Rolling hills and sweeping curves and a single oak tree atop a ridge were delicious sights, holding me in a state of fascination for long moments—as were the sounds of katydids and crunching gravel and lowing cattle ﬂoating in through open windows. Even at a young age, I must have sensed the basic goodness of the countryside, its pull on me growing with every ride.
Most of my adult life has been spent in cities with rural wanderings far too infrequent. Sure, life in an urban setting can be good—can be very good—but it is different. The views are close-up and change much more frequently than they do in the country, as advances in technology, transportation, and architecture typically ﬁnd their roots in the city. Again, nothing inherently wrong with progress, but I ﬁnd myself wishing for, even needing to, get back out in the country with its timeless scenery, its long-honored customs, and its slackened pace. Oddly enough, and thankfully, that good place begins no more than 20 or 25 miles from most cities, and that is certainly true of Tennessee.
So, in the fall of 2012, I set out to see if I could capture what this lasting goodness looks like along the state, county, and local two-lanes of the Volunteer State. To give the work an ageless feel, I used a Holga, a $25 plastic ﬁlm camera that yields a gauzy look with the occasional streak of light across the image and dark, ill-focused corners. What I’ve ended up with two years later are 95 carefully selected photographs (one from each county), 11,000 miles logged on two cars, and lots of new friends.”
Park said, “The photos began to dictate their stories or poems or essays to me.” S&E Nashville asked Park to talk about what he found most compelling in the subject matter that emerged from his venture.
“The people. Definitely the people. And many of them can tell a story about themselves that’s better than anything you can make up yourself. For instance, an auto junkyard owner with a hand printed sign on a ’61 Chevy station wagon along the road that says, “If you’re reading this, you’re on TV, and I shoot to kill”. That man turned out to be a heck of a nice guy named Nelson Bandy (As he suggested, “I’m Mo without the Dough!”).
Another example: Two barefooted, aproned and bonneted sisters stringing up beans in their daddy’s garden. Daddy said they’re not Amish or Mennonites. They’re Plain People and their philosophy on having their picture taken was a surprise to me: If asked to pose, they won’t. But, if they’re minding and going about their own business and you, for whatever reason, find that interesting, then go ahead and take your photograph.
Or Bear Burkett (“Yeah, that’s what they call me, Bear”) sitting in a beat-down old easy chair in front of an equally well used building on South Main Street in Ridgely with “City Jail” stenciled on the black insulation panels covering the front, with, oh, about a dozen cats running around his feet and climbing all over him. Now, there was a story. And that one’s in the book.”
What did you learn about Tennessee that surprised you as you worked on this project?
“Honestly, there weren’t a lot of surprises. What I expected to see, what I was looking for, I found. Good people. Plain, hard working, hands-using, and mostly God-fearing. Folks that would stop what they were doing when I pulled over, got out of the car, and started walking toward them. “Howdy! Can I help you?” Then I would start my spiel about a plastic $30 camera, and the lasting beauty of our rural areas, and me going to every county to get a photo, and, well, it would just sort of take off from there. In a few minutes, I knew I had been blessed to have made another friend.”
Would you tell us why you chose the photo you did for Davidson County? (It seems there is so much too choose from here!)
“Well, I have to chuckle at that question, ‘cause it was indeed a challenge to find a slow road, period, in Davidson, Shelby, and Knox counties. They’re mostly all urban, all thick with structure, all veined with divided highways, and noisy. Not much about them is slow.
So, when I went wandering in the northern part of Davidson, full of hope and determination but pressed hard to come up with something, I was thrilled to find the old bridge. . . . I had limited myself up front to staying on the local, county, and some state roads—no U.S. highways. This project was, from the get-go, about the country.”
You can see Park’s exhibit on December 5 from 6:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m. during Nashville’s monthly Art Crawl, and Tuesdays-Saturdays from 11:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.at through December 23.