“An Interview with Photographer & Historian Brian Brown”
Originally posted on US17coastalhighway.com [now a broken link, unfortunately]
Back in June of 2010, I first posted a photograph taken by Brian Brown. I had come across his website, Vanishing South Georgia, while searching for images taken along the Highway 17 corridor, and I contacted him to see if he would give me permission to post one photograph. He was generous, and responded ‘yes’ quite quickly – and all I can say is that I’ve been hooked ever since. If you type ‘Brian Brown’ in my search box (in the upper right-hand corner of this page), you’ll see more examples of his work related to US 17. I could go on and on about Brian’s work and what I admire about his photography – but I’d rather you take a look for yourself.
I think it’s appropriate that the first photographer I contacted about including his/her images in these pages is the first person that I do a ‘Q&A’ with – and I feel that his approach to his work captures the spirit of what I would like you to find here, at US 17. My hope is that his photographs and these pages slow you down a bit and make you look more closely at what might be right in front of you: little pieces of our history and uniqueness, hiding in plain sight.
US 17: I’ve been a huge fan of Vanishing South Georgia for a while now, and so I was thrilled to see that you were launching Vanishing Coastal Georgia. I think I used the word ‘obsessive’ to describe your work before – where did this obsession come from, and where do you plan to take it?
Brian Brown: Thanks for referring to the work as obsessive! Many people might see that as an insult, but to me, there’s no higher praise. My obsession is driven by what many refer to as a “sense of place”. I’m told it’s strongest in the South, this need to feel a connection with one’s homeland…to me it was an easy thing to do, and something I had to do. Having spent much of my youth on the dusty backroads of South Georgia, I began to notice, upon returning from Atlanta in 2008, that the physical structures which for most of the twentieth century defined the place were disappearing. And no one seemed to be on the ground, documenting their demise. I saw this as an opportunity, a way to share what I knew must be of interest to others; in just three years, over three-quarters of a million people have validated that belief.
And since you’re a scientist, you’ll appreciate these figures: nearly 20,000 miles traveled in three years, culminating in over a quarter-million photographs made in 81 counties and 342 named places. That does qualify as an obsession, come to think of it.
As to the future of the project, I have plans to self-publish several county-specific books based on the website using my first, Vanishing Irwin County, as a model. And the Vanishing Coastal Georgia site is a natural progression, as it’s one of the most visited areas of Georgia, and where I now reside. My ultimate goal with the site is to gather my very best images of vernacular architecture and ghost towns and publish them through a university or independent press. Something like Terri Fisher and Kirsten Sparenborg’s wonderful Lost Communities of Virginia.
US 17: ‘Vanishing’ is a scary, often sad word. Do you remember the first place that you took a photo of, only later to find that it was gone?
Brian Brown: Vanishing does evoke a finality, I suppose, but it goes hand-in-hand with the exodus from rural areas which for the first time in our history as a nation finds more Americans living in cities than in the country. I’ve shot so many places since 2008 that have already disappeared, but the first one I remember is a red tile tobacco barn in my home county of Ben Hill. I always took it for granted and after I got a good camera and went back to rephotograph it, it was gone, as if it had never been there. I realize we can’t save every old farmhouse and barn, but photography is the great equalizer in this effort. It becomes a preservation tool in its own right, in the absence of other options.
US 17: Do you remember your first camera? Do you still have some of those first photographs? Who has influenced your work the most?
Brian Brown: The first serious camera I ever used was my father’s Minolta XGM, which I commandeered for a high school photography class in 1985. Because we did our own darkroom work in that course, I actually still have some of those early images.
It’s hard to pick one influence over another, but beyond the Farm Security Administration photographers of the Great Depression, who were active in Irwinville, Georgia, near my hometown of Fitzgerald, I would have to say that William Christenberry’s Alabama photographs were what led me to create Vanishing South Georgia. His ritual of returning to his native Hale County each year from Washington, D. C., shooting the same places over and over in an attempt to capture their evolution (or devolution) was always admirable and appealing to me. I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Christenberry at an opening of his retrospective at Augusta’s Morris Museum of Art in 2009, and let’s just say it changed my life, sent me off on this wonderful obsession. He was one of the kindest, most unassuming, unpretentious people I’ve ever met, and when I told him of my project, he was very encouraging. Above all others, Christenberry elevated the photography of vernacular architecture to a high art, while eschewing the fickle trends that seem rampant in today’s digital age.
Sometimes, when I look at your photographs, I wonder how many people have driven by a place every day for years, without noticing it. Your work draws attention to forgotten places, and makes one slow down instead of racing by, with blinders on. What is it that makes some people notice such places, and others to not? Perhaps understanding that difference is the key to getting people to value and conserve buildings that are outside of what we traditionally think of as historical.
Brian Brown: The quote by Swift validates what you say about driving by places for years and never noticing them. Seeing is just seeing, but a vision requires us to know that seeing differently will be of interest to others in the future. I can’t tell you how many places I’ve found that I must surely have passed a hundred times, only to have an a-ha moment when I realized they were there.
My friend Amanda Baird, who tirelessly documents Cracker architecture in Florida, recently gave this caption to one of her photographs of an abandoned farmhouse on Flickr: “This was on our way home from Alabama to Florida; stopped at a church to organize some stuff in the car and I spied that most wonderful of things to spy, a tin roof through the trees.” That sums it up for me.
I guess there are just those of us who admire the beauty of old architecture and forlorn communities, who see it all for what it was and want others to see it in the same way. Perhaps it’s a romantic vision, even a bit saccharine, but as a historian by training, I grasp the importance.
US 17: The Highway 17 corridor is one of those roads with a strong history and sense of place, yet much of its more subtle (and not so subtle) character is slowly vanishing.You’ve taken a lot of photographs along this corridor in Georgia. Do you think it’s possible to grow and develop along the US 17 corridor, and simultaneously preserve its character and identity?
Brian Brown: US 17 is a trip back in time for me, a slower way to see the beauty of our coast. I always travel on this road when I can avoid I-95. But perhaps that speaks to your earlier point of the differences between those who slow down to see things and those who don’t. In Georgia, it’s not only a historic automobile route, but easily the nearest access to the vast majority of the state’s pre-colonial and colonial history. It’s no exaggeration to say that most of Georgia’s early history was written within twenty-five miles, at any given point, of US 17.
Unfortunately we don’t have a very proactive tourism department in Georgia, or they would see this and do all they could to promote it. Posting a sign here and there is no way to promote a concept as large as US 17. The greed-driven land grab by developers along the coast is bringing major change to a population that has persisted through hardship and loss for a better part of two centuries. When developers push their bulldozers into an area, they have no interest in preserving historic places. This is why I plan on incorporating more landscapes and environmental shots into Vanishing Coastal Georgia. As an environmentalist since childhood, I’m sickened by the loss of natural communities along US 17 as much as I am by the loss of cultural and historic communities.
Aside from the well-known sites, like Midway Church or Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation, most everything else on US 17 is the history of America’s rise to prominence during the last century. Not unlike Route 66, it’s a microcosm of the history of the rise of the automobile, of a more mobile population, and even as we take those things for granted today, we seem to have little interest in saving their collateral landmarks. What you are doing, with this website, is the best way to bring attention to their plight, and hopefully, to bring more people to their rescue.
As to simultaneously growing and preserving history along US 17, of course it’s possible. Whether Georgia’s politicians and developers agree remains doubtful.
US 17: So far, what’s your favorite spot along the Georgia coastline?
Brian Brown: I hate choosing favorites, since I usually have a new one every few months, or with new discoveries, but I would have to say that Midway Congregational Church (1792) and its cemetery are perennially at the top of my list on US 17. If you love history, the place will hold you hard in its clutches.
As to the coast in general, it would be a tossup between Jekyll Island and the marshes of McIntosh County. Two wonderful places which aren’t yet overdeveloped. Not yet. We can only hope that they will be managed well and left alone for the most part.