Photographers have traveled a long, hard road to gain respect as serious artists.
Even today, when major museums and galleries are flush with photography and photo-based works, some art buyers and connoisseurs still haven’t gotten past the standard I-can-press-a-button-on-a-camera-too prejudice.
But for late N.C. photographer Bayard Wootten, making pictures was hardly that easy. In the 1930s and ’40s, the pioneer artist captured images of native Western North Carolinians. No itinerant hobbyist, Wootten was a woman with major family responsibilities of her own, providing for not only her own two children but also her mother and siblings.
An early feminist before the word came into common use, Wootten managed to get herself appointed chief of publicity for the North Carolina National Guard at a time when women were forbidden to even set foot on the grounds of a military encampment. A fearless adventurer who traversed unmarked mountain trails with her unwieldy box camera, she was the first photographer to take aerial photographs in North Carolina.
Wootten’s work in the mountains began in the mid-’30s when she was tapped by her cousin Lucy Morgan, the founder of the Penland School, to take pictures there. The resulting photos of women spinning and weaving are important not only in the context of Wootten’s art but as documentation of what would become one of the nation’s pre-eminent craft schools.
Her Pictoralist style, however, meant she romanticized her subjects. Using a number of technical methods, Wootten strove to make her photos look more like paintings — and thus render them more acceptable to collectors. Wootten herself is harder to romanticize; though clearly a maverick, the Southern photographer remained in other ways a woman of her time (racist terms like “pickaninnies” and “darkies” are to be found in the titles of photos she took in South Carolina’s Low Country).
For the most part, however, the photographer’s depictions of Western North Carolinians are respectful, showing mountain men and women performing the daily hard labor their survival required.
In one shot, a middle-aged woman in a gingham apron strides along holding a couple of hens by the feet, their heads dangling, clearly headed for the Sunday dinner table. There’s a white sack slung over her right shoulder, perhaps holding greens or beans from her garden. Still, her head inclines toward the camera, and her expression is as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa’s.
Asheville photographer Brigid Burns has taken the Pictoralist idea a few strokes further.
Although she represents a generation far removed from Wootten’s, Burns is equally an adventurer. Like Wootten, Burns is interested in narration — but whereas Wootten used technical innovation to stretch her medium, Burns literally applies paint to her pictures, rather than manipulating her negatives or using exotic papers or soft focus.
Burns begins her process with a black-and-white photo. In most cases, the background and the subject’s clothing are the most heavily painted; the figures tend to retain their photographic faces.
No naturalist, Burns has her subjects posed almost theatrically, and most gaze directly into her lens. Some are shown in intimate domestic settings (living rooms or bedrooms), while others are captured on city streets.
But where Wootten told tales of daily life, Burns’ surrealism ensnares her subjects in alternate worlds.
“Man and Horse in Unexpected Landscape” depicts a balding man, hips thrust forward, his arm encircling the head of a white horse. The background has been painted into a mysterious silvery environment, and the man’s silly, grinning face is topped with a red birthday-party hat.
It seems unlikely that this white horse will be ridden to the rescue of a damsel in distress.
Costumes figure prominently in other works as well. In “The Toy Museum,” an outdoor shot, a woman sits on a rickety stool near a blindfolded child. The expression on the woman’s face suggests impending doom, but it’s unclear whether the truth is being hidden from the little girl to protect her — or simply to keep her in the dark.
Brigid Burns’ Seen/Not Seen: A Year in Pictures will open at Blue Spiral 1 (38 Biltmore Ave.; 251-0202) on Thursday, Nov. 6. No admission.
A Certain Quality of Spirit: The Photography of Bayard Wootten will open at the Asheville Art Museum (2 S. Pack Square at Pack Place; 253-3227) on Friday, Nov. 7. Admission is $6/adults, $5/children and seniors. An opening reception will be held Sunday, Nov. 9 from 2-4 p.m.