In order to survive, we human beings do just about everything. We’ve even invented time – an organisational tool that is immensely useful (and secures Swiss watch makers a decent income) but also terrorises us. From Lisa Volpe, who contributed the essay “Natural Rhythms: Time in the Cumberland Plateau” to this tome, I learn that time has a different meaning in this area in east Tennessee, “nestled amid the Appalachian Mountains, some of the oldest mountains in the northern hemisphere. The sensuous, gentle curves of the ancient range stand hard and resilient against the eternal sky. This landscape of soft daylight, mature green glades, and misty mornings has a particular subtlety and rhythm that is neither hurried nor lacking.”
Although the musical tradition of the Cumberland Plateau was the catalyst for this work, Lisa Volpe identifies time “as the major theme of the series and Boillot’s treatment of it is both subtle and shrewd.” Is this a photo book about time then? Well, sure, every photograph is (also) about time but photographer Rachel Boillot expresses it very personally by, for instance, photographing Tom McCarroll with his instruments and later on in his casket with his fiddle near his hands.
I very much warmed to Rachel Boillot’s “Author’s Note” in which she describes how this book came about. “I first went to Tennessee in June of 2014. My intention was to spend two months making photographs for a park ranger. The subject matter was opaque to me, but I needed a gig. Folkorist, naturalist, and musician Bob Fulcher, who currently manages Tennessee’s Cumberland Trail State Scenic Park, was initially dismayed by my lack of knowledge regarding old-time country music. Turned out this was the focus of the job. Bob believes that preserving cultural resources is just as important as land conservation in this region, which is the more explicit prerogative of the parks system. But in Tennessee, music is ‘in the water’, as the saying goes. I had absolutely no knowledge of country music – not to mention its history and the old-time traditions that preceded contemporary country music.”
I can’t imagine a much better way to approach a photographic assignment. I’m not joking, not at all, for I believe to approach something without prior knowledge or, as the Zen Buddhists say, with a beginner’s mind, can be highly rewarding – and in the case of Rachel Boillot it indeed was. The story of her time in Tennessee and of her encounters with the folks living there are a fascinating read, not least because of her unpretentiousness.
The last section of “Moon Shine” is entitled “In their own words” and that describes aptly what it is – oral histories that Rachel Boillot gathered during the process of filming the ‘Cumberland Folklife’ series of documentary films that she co-produced with Kyle Wilkinson. These stories give a good insight into an America we rarely get to read about in the mainstream media. Many of the photos in this section (from family archives) are in black and white.
The photos (in colour) depict the landscape and people in different postures, often with eyes cast down or together with their instruments, nobody’s smiling at the camera.
by Rachel Boillot
Also published on Medium.