Who hasn’t sifted through a collection of old photos, hungry for familiar faces, younger selves or long-dead kin? Memory is uncertain and painted portraits always lie, but a photograph constitutes evidence — legal evidence, in fact, up until the computer age and its easily morphed digital images.
“This is how we were,” we tell ourselves. “This is how it was.”
In essence, the invention of photography created the modern sensibility of time as both directional and inexorable.
And the three newest books in Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America” series offer glimpses of the face of Western North Carolina during the photographic era: Asheville, by Douglas Stuart McDaniel; Early Tourism in Western North Carolina, by Stephen C. Compton; and Black Mountain and the Swannanoa Valley, compiled by the Swannanoa Valley Museum.
A journey through these books turns up evidence of both startling changes and enduring continuity. In Asheville, we encounter the Flat Iron Building under construction, a scene repeating today directly across the street, as 21 Battery Park rises on the site of other buildings long gone. Or look closely at the photo that graces the Xpress cover this week, of Haywood Street crowded with baseball fans following the 1923 World Series play-by-play — and then look again in real time during Bele Chere. Facades have come and gone, but not the spirit of the place.
Casting a wider net, Early Tourism in Western North Carolina is built around 10 themes, among them: The Smoky Mountains; High Country Towns and Places; Handmade Crafts; Dams and Lakes; and, of course, Natural Wonders.
The Black Mountain volume reveals the least change — no surprise from a town that successfully resisted the Interstate system for years after its neighbors had succumbed. The church-based assemblies and retreats that built up the town a century ago are well represented here, as are the timber and rail industries.
It is almost five decades since I myself first came into these mountains, and my experiences here stretch back into the period Compton loosely defines as “Early.” But ultimately, remarkably, what is most evident to me in all three of these volumes is stasis. A few of the hotels have burned, some waterfalls have collapsed and reconfigured, and forests have regrown — but in many of these pictures, the only telling antiques are the autos.
While the photographic reproductions in these books are fine, editorial errors and assumptions weaken the text in both the McDaniel and Compton titles. McDaniel’s work is a far better history, with a useful synopsis of the city’s life included, and with most pictures accompanied by dates. But misplaced captions are annoying, and the opening photo of Cherokee people in Sioux war bonnets, without corrective text, seems sadly oblivious.
Compton’s work relies even more heavily on Western-Indian-costumed Cherokees, though captioning at least points out that this bit of historical nonsense was staged for tourists.
Elsewhere in Early Tourism the text is often cloying — revealing an entitled, patriarchal attitude as antique as the pictures. The murderous Spaniards, the unrelenting English and Scots and the tastefully rich are treated very kindly here. Every despoliation of the landscape is heralded as an unmitigated plus. Dams are super, natural wonders want development, and mountain people and natives are here to delight vacationing travelers.
However, photo books are mostly about the pictures, and frankly, these pictures are fun and absorbing. Local readers will discover that much changes — and much remains the same. Old pictures remind us of what we are not now, and all that is foundational to our current lives.
We are perched atop a gap between a century-and-a-half of photography and the omnipresent now of what cyberneticist Ray Kurzweil calls the Age of Spiritual Machines — computers that bend time and eliminate space. An epoch when uploading our sentient selves and casting off bodies is seriously discussed as a near-term eventuality. The road ahead is ablaze with pixels and data streams.
We may never look back this way again.
Douglas Stuart McDaniel will discuss and sign copies of Asheville at 7 p.m. Saturday, June 12 at Malaprop’s Bookstore (55 Haywood St.; 254-6734).