Welcome to the fourth installment of MFA|EDA’s 4th Friday Alumni 6Pack. We are happy to continue the new custom with the intrepid Rachel Boillot, from the Class of 2014.
Take it away, RB:
Home, Away from Home, and Home Again
I recently spent several months recovering from a minor surgery in my childhood home in New York. Suffice to say, this was quite a change after spending the past four years living in rural Tennessee. Knowing full well I likely wouldn’t use the images for anything, I took to photographing around the household with the only thing I could easily carry on crutches, which was a Holga. I really did feel like a child again puttering around the place where I grew up, toy in hand. Not a bad way to learn to walk again.
The films of Ernie Gehr
I am fortunate to have grown up in close proximity to New York City, so I was able to see a lot of art at this time. One particularly delightful surprise was when I viewed four Ernie Gehr films at MoMa: Market Street Quartet, Essex Street Quartet, Noontime Activities, and Workers Leaving the Factory (After Lumiere).
On view as part of the exhibit The Long Run, these 16mm silent beauties also reminded me of the sheer wonder one can find in observing the mundane. Originally filmed in the 1970s, Gehr revisited this footage decades later, which speaks volumes to artists’ need to tend to their own archive and dip into it for fresh inspiration from time to time. If Gehr had not, these precious time capsules might have been lost.
Walker Evans’ Subway Portraits
Gehr’s films from the 1970s brought to mind Evans’ series of subway portraits, made 1936-1941 and later published in 1966 under the title Many Art Called.
Gehr also made work in New York City subways, but it was their like-minded approach, not any shared location, that instigated the conversation between Gehr and Evans for me. Both artists were so unabashedly interested in the act of looking. It makes me want to take to the world and just watch it, capture it.
Making New Work
These moments of inspiration came at a rather opportune moment in my own artistic practice, as I’m currently in the process of finishing one body of work and starting another. After a few years immersed in the process of making work in Tennessee, I find myself stymied by the prospect of a new project. Where to even begin? A new member of the Kentucky Documentary Photography Project, I have the rare opportunity to whatever pictures I want to make, so long as they are within one of the counties I have been assigned. Time will tell what other guiding parameters, if any emerge.
Finishing Old Work
No less dauting than starting anew is the prospect of finishing the old work. I’m publishing my first book this spring, which is wildly exciting, but also involves a reckoning of sorts. There is always so much that goes on around the frame that sometimes the pictures themselves hardly seem enough. And, of course, the selection of images requires killing some darlings! But I’m thrilled to be working on the book and to have the opportunity to consider this format as its own unique art form, in which distinct images come together to become something new.
Remembering Curtis Byrge
I lost my dear friend Curtis Byrge this past May. I met him through my work in Tennessee, and I consider his legacy as I complete my book. I’m certainly proud to put his image on the front cover of the work.
I first met Curtis in 2014, when he was 71 and I was 26. I had only just graduated from Duke’s MFA|EDA program that May and was working on a post-graduate fellowship to document musical heritage along Tennessee’s Cumberland Trail. When the Knoxville News Sentinel decided to do a feature on my work in the region, they accompanied me along on my first visit to Curtis.
Curtis Byrge was born legally blind on Christmas Day 1942 atop what locals call the Noah Daugherty Mountain in Devonia, Tennessee. His father worked there constructing the railroad that would later be responsible for hauling coal out of the area. Due to his poor eyesight, Curtis had very little formal education. Instead, he channeled his energy into playing music:
“You know, being born blind was a good thing, cause God gave me a lot better stuﬀ than I could have learned in school. He gave me the talent to play instruments. At my birth he bestowed that on me. The Lord did. That’s how I become to play and sing. Born knowing.”
Also due to his eyesight, Curtis never was able to operate a motor vehicle. He was a beloved figure in the area who could frequently be found wandering around town. Each Saturday he walked to town to perform old-time music at the Oak Ridge flea market. He played old ballad standards like “Barbara Allen” alongside songs he wrote himself. One example, “Carrie”, was written about his favorite employee at the Food City where he shopped for his groceries.
About a month after I met him, I got word that Curtis had a new song in his repertoire, “Angel with a Camera.” The song initially made me incredibly bashful, but I ended up wholeheartedly embracing it, especially once Curtis renamed it “A Legend of Me.” In the song, Curtis reveals how much it meant to him that I photographed him. I can’t imagine anything better resulting from the making of a picture than the sort of pride our exchange inspired in Curtis.
Over the past four years, Curtis and I grew close. He is prominently featured in one of the documentaries I am currently completing for the Cumberland Folklife series (which was filmed and co-produced by my fellow Duke alum Kyle Wilkinson ’16 and is now being edited by Anna Kipervaser, also from the class of ’16!) I photographed him many more times, and we often appeared on stage together. I would rosin up Curtis’ bow as he prepared to play, making jokes about my being his “Little Dolly” all the while. My role simply was to make sure that Curtis would navigate the stage safely with his eyesight being the way it was, but I was always proud to sit up there with my friend. I last photographed Curtis on the day of the 2017 Eclipse, which we watched together.
Curtis was tragically hit by a truck on one of his walks to town this past May 2nd. Though I still feel devastated to have lost this cherished figure in my life as both a human and a photographer, I am glad to have known him at all. I am further glad to have made him feel a legend. These are the experiences that make life as a documentary artist so fulfilling for me.
Caitlin Margaret Kelly (’14).
See you then.