In 2014, photographer Rachel Boillot went to Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau to work for Bob Fulcher, a park ranger who also is a folklorist, naturalist and musician, and who manages Tennessee’s Cumberland Trail Scenic Park. She wasn’t even all that knowledgeable about what she was about to work on. But, as she lets us know in an author’s note at the end of her new book, “Moon Shine: Photographs of the Cumberland Plateau,” she “needed the gig.” The subject? The culture surrounding old-time country music.
It isn’t surprising that Boillot wasn’t aware of the musical traditions of country music or the traditions that informed it. Boillot says she was raised in “New York’s well-to-do Westchester County.” Indeed, the people she met while embarking on her journey believed she was naive about their lifestyle.
While Boillot admits that she had no thorough background knowledge about her subject matter, that changed when she started meeting people and learning about their history. As she says in her note in the book:
“What I learned was that there was a time when families played together at home for the sheer revelry of sounding out in celebration after a hard day’s work. They played thankfully for another day gone by. There was genuine soul in that. It was not a commercial endeavor; it was expression.”
Boillot initially only worked on the project for two months until her contract ended. But life takes interesting twists and turns, and she returned later to work as an audio engineer and help run a record label, neither of which she had any experience with. Boillot says, “I was a still photographer ill-equipped for the task, but excited to spend more time with the people I had met that first summer.”
The enthusiasm Boillot felt and the deep affinity she cultivated with the people she photographed are evident in her work. The photos are informative about a kind of musical tradition that is disappearing, but they are also tender, reverential documents about a people, place and time that live on as a persistent part of American culture even though it is also fading. But that’s what time does, it passes us. Boillot’s photos freeze some of that time so that we can remember it. As Boillot says, “What else does a photographer do but gather time?”
You can find out more about Boillot’s work on her website here.
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