A Tale of Two Pictures


I went to a benefit for Donnie Norton a couple of weeks ago at the Walnut Fire Department out on Hwy. 25-70, west of Marshall. Donnie has had some serious health issues over the last couple of years and had to retire from his job as an asphalt roller with APAC.  I’ve known Donnie and his family since 1975 - he is one of Dellie Norton’s great-grandchildren - and I knew everyone would be comfortable with me making photographs.

I especially wanted to make photographs of Donnie with his grandson Elijah, which I did. I was thinking to do a pretty standard portrait, framed tightly with little or no background, both people looking straight into the camera. I was shooting with my digital Canon SLR.

This first photograph is close to ideal – proud grandfather securely holding his tentative grandson. Donnie is a big, broad man, but my distance from him and the focal length of the lens keep him from seeming imposing. It’s a warm image, in both tone and feeling. It’s happy and optimistic and consistent with a classic genre of photographs. It’s been done millions of times and most of us have similar images in our scrapbooks or on our Facebook pages. I knew the family would love it, and they did.

Those situations usually demand a series of exposures. Facial expressions, especially with children, change so quickly that a photographer will generally not rely on a single image. He wants a number of pictures to look at before he chooses the best one. That was my situation with Donnie and Elijah. Eleven frames later, probably less than two minutes, I made this second photograph, which has a totally different feel than the first one.

The obvious difference is I chose to present this second one in black and white. Stripped of the warmth and distraction of the color, the photograph is all emotion. I got closer and tighter, which immediately makes Donnie appear larger than life. With a small tilt of his head, a slightly different camera angle, and dead seriousness of his eyes, he appears ominous. Elijah, sans pacifier, has evolved from tentative to fearful and his grandfather, while still in the same secure posture, now seems to be protecting his grandson from an imminent threat.

What interests me is the camera’s ability to fashion the message from a picture. Virtually nothing had changed about the emotion of the situation from one image to the next. Yet, with only minor alterations in technique and camera placement, a radically different storyline develops, one more powerful and ambivilent than the first. 

We like to think the camera doesn’t lie and I think there is truth to that statement. But I also believe a picture is worth a thousand words and oftentimes those words can be contradictory, not necessarily truthful, or complete regarding any particular situation. 




While creating the poster for the Madison County Stories exhibit, someone asked if my photograph, Moosehead, Paw Paw, Madison County, NC, 2012, was representative of the county and should be included on the poster. As a rule I think decisions like this are best left to the artist although the question itself raises other legitimate questions about our county and community. Who are we today, in 2013? How has our community changed and stayed the same? Who are our neighbors? What does the land around us mean to us? And how do we represent our place in an honest and accurate way?

There are no easy answers, of course. And they deserve far more time than one simple blog entry can offer. I have some immediate thoughts to share though and will be raising these questions again in subsequent entries. I’m hoping some of you readers will share your ideas also.

When I moved to Madison County forty years ago I believed this to be the most welcoming place I had ever been. It was also the most homogeneous. The local population shared a consistent set of values and traditions that included love of family, land, country, and religion. Most people farmed, or at least, gardened, milked, kept chickens, and heated with wood. And with few exceptions, local residents were warm and engaging and pleased to have new, young people moving into the community and expressing interest in the local culture. Most of us “fereigners,” as Dellie would refer to us, were adopted by local families who taught us skills, introduced us to neighbors and family, and became lifetime friends. Such a gift.

Madison County was a foreign place for many of us newcomers, too. We had come from large cities and cosmopolitan areas with more amenities and the smallness of the place was revelatory for us. Everyone knew each other here; and everyone seemed to know everyone’s business. It was a dry county and religious expression played an important role in most people’s lives. The local dialect and manner of speech were challenging and, like most farming communities, it lived by the rhythms of nature. It was often said that when you set foot in Madison County you stepped back fifty years. That sense of time standing still appealed to a lot of us.

The county has changed radically since the 1970s, as has the rest of the country. We have many new neighbors and I’m struck by the sheer numbers and diversity of people moving in and committing themselves to a place they likely knew little about. Modern technologies and better road access have linked us with wherever we want to be in the world, which has opened the entire county and its people to new ideas and non-traditional values. Change and transition are difficult for any community to accept, but I think more so in small, tight-knit places like our own.

When I ask new people why they’ve moved to Madison County, most simply say, “The place just feels right.” It’s a defining sentiment about the county and one shared by newcomers and locals alike. It’s interesting to me that despite our differences in look, lifestyle, thought, and belief, we are here in Madison County for essentially the same reason. It Just Feels Right. Perhaps that is our best and most accurate representation of  place.