Documenting cultures is nothing new, but more and more I have the chance to see and learn about what I might refer to as micro-cultures. In particular, there has been a lot of work that documents the South in the good ‘ol US of A, but within that are myriad peoples and stories that are equally as intriguing as the next. Small stories that speak to the human condition, and life outside your own comfort zone. I have to admit that I feel incredibly fortunate to view images from people I had no idea about, or a life so far away from my own. Differing perspectives and keeping an open mind about others and what affects them keeps me a bit more honest, I believe. It can be hard at times to see past your own shadow, but when photographers like Rachel Boillot get behind the camera and present imagery that elevates even these smaller stories, I feel a little better about my continued existence in this world. I realize that as big as this planet is, we all share similar feelings, but all approach them differently. This is a chance to learn, and a chance to grow as an individual and a society.
In addition, and also concerning the educational aspects of documentary photography, I have to mention Rachel’s love of the history of photography. This is a medium full of vibrant stories as well, and I have to put a big thank you out there to Rachel for carrying the torch and relaying her love of photography to others. Between this and her ongoing projects, she is an educator of the highest order, and quite obviously someone whom I need to ask some questions of.
Rachel Boillot is a photographer, filmmaker, and educator based in Nashville, TN. She holds a BA in Sociology from Tufts University, a BFA in Photography from Tufts University/the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, and an MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts from Duke University.
Her work has been funded by the Annenberg Foundation (Los Angeles, CA), the Riverview Foundation (Chattanooga, TN), the Tennessee Arts Commission (Nashville, TN), and the National Endowment for the Arts (Washington, D.C.). She was the recipient of the 2018 PhotoNOLA Review Award.
Her monograph Moon Shine: Photographs of the Cumberland Plateau will be published by Daylight Books in April 2019. Her documentary film In That Valley of Gold will also be released at that time. Boillot currently teaches the History of Photography at Belmont University. She recently joined the team at the Kentucky Documentary Photography Project
Michael Kirchoff: Thank you so much for taking the time and effort to answer some questions, Rachel. I’m going to start off in typical fashion by asking for some background on what got you interested in the visual arts. What was the spark that got your attention?
Rachel Boillot: My passion for photography and artmaking was as much a surprise to me as anyone else. I wish there was a better story, but there isn’t. I was fortunate enough to go to a school where photography was offered as an art elective. I couldn’t draw, so I enrolled in a photography course. There I discovered the addictive aura of the darkroom. I was hooked from day one, and, like I said, I was as surprised, perhaps even more so, than anyone around me. I was absolutely transfixed and there was no looking back. It seemed to serve a need that I hadn’t known I had.
I lived for it, though I lacked the courage to formally pursue it by going to art school. Then I got lucky again. As a liberal arts student at Tufts University, I was encouraged by my professor to transfer into a combined-degree program with the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. That way, my safety net felt intact – I would still be working towards my liberal arts degree, which I thought would lead to a practical vocation. Making art for a living didn’t really seem tenable, and I was concerned that it would be selfish to spend my life doing something that made me happy first and foremost. But, at the time, I was practically living in the college darkroom. I had even rigged a back entrance so that I could close it to the public at midnight, security could go home, and I could circle around back and re-enter to continue peacefully on through the night. One morning my professor found me catnapping while my prints were in the wash at around 6 in the morning. It was clear I had been up all night printing, so he decided it was time for a talk. I haven’t looked back since.
MK: Do you have any specific artistic influences from outside the realm of photography come into play in the making of your photographs?
RB: My greatest creative influence is literature. I have always read rather voraciously. In fact, I thought I’d become a writer. To this day, the stories I read help me to understand what I see in the world – or at least to embrace its ultimate mystery, to revel in the gaps of my understanding.
In recent years, with the Moon Shine project and my move to Tennessee, music has become an influence. Like literature, it’s a narrative, creative form of expression. With both what I read and what I hear, I’m ultimately interested in how this can be translated to the visual.
MK: What is it that you get out of creating photographs? Is there an overriding theme in your work that you feel best represents you as an artist?
RB: I personally get a great sense of delight. I’m unabashedly in love with what I do. I’ve made my peace with that question that used to haunt me, whether or not it would be selfish to spend a lifetime pursuing my own art.
Perhaps the greatest thing about my life as a photographer is that it keeps me constantly learning, which is all I’ve ever wanted out of life. Photography feeds my curiosity. Each project brings me some place new, even if it’s a new understanding of my own home.
I don’t know that there is an overriding theme. I get nervous about pigeon-holing myself. I like to think that the future is full of surprises and my art practice will continue evolving. That said, I think my work deals with changes in American culture and tradition. I’m especially interested in the ways we communicate and tell stories – like playing music or writing a letter – and how that translates to a sense of place.
MK: Your images observe a simpler life and time, yet in a contemporary society. How long have you been working in documentary photography, and specifically within the framework of the area you live in?
RB: I would say that I have been working as a documentary photographer since 2012. That’s when I entered graduate school and began Post Script, which I think is my first mature body of work. I moved to Tennessee and began photographing here in 2014.
MK: Your body of work, Moon Shine: Photographs of the Cumberland Plateau, recently made an appearance as a finalist for Critical Mass, 2018. Did the Cumberland Gap Folklife Project come from this work or the other way around? They definitely feed into and inform one another, which is a beautiful way of expanding and bringing your work to more eyes. Also, I see that Daylight Books is publishing this work, followed up by a documentary film. You’ve defintely had your hands full!
RB: Yes, the Cumberland Gap Folklife Project came from the Moon Shine work. I first came to Tennessee in the summer of 2014 after graduating from Duke’s MFA program in Experimental and Documentary Studies. Honestly, I really didn’t know much about what I’d be doing, other than the fact that I’d get paid to make pictures for two months. I immediately signed on – I needed a gig! Getting paid to make pictures… well, that sounded just perfect.
Turns out that the task at hand was to document old-time musicians living in the Cumberland Plateau. And for a Park Ranger, no less! My new boss was Bob Fulcher, who is a Park Ranger, naturalist, folklorist, and musical expert. Bob believes that preserving cultural resources is just as important as preserving natural resources, the more explicit prerogative of the Tennessee State Parks system. For that reason, he has made it his life’s work to preserve the rare musical traditions of the Cumberland Plateau. He has amassed a formidable archive of field recordings that really testifies to the unique heritage of the region. The music is both a personal passion and part of his work life, as he has staged myriad old-time music festivals in the parks. His most recent project at the time was Sandrock Recordings, a record label that is a project of the state parks system. That’s where I came in: I was hired to make photographs that could be used for marketing purposes as well as CD covers.
One problem: I knew absolutely nothing about old-time music. I previously had had literally no exposure to the music of this tradition. I was going in blind. I think Bob was a little dismayed by that at first. But, in retrospect, I think that was actually kind of a beautiful thing. I learned. Having no previous knowledge or understanding of the regional culture or its music, I entered with a kind of a blank slate. And the music served as my introduction to a place and the inspiration for my work.
After two months, I left. It was the end of the contract. I had another commission in North Carolina and a teaching job at Duke University. I was moving into my newly rented apartment when Bob unexpectedly called me in the blue of December. I was expecting it to be my mother, who had come to assist with the move. I answered immediately.
“Rachel, I’m in a bit of pickle,” he said. “I need an audio engineer for the record label.” I replied, “Bobby, I’m no audio engineer, but I’d come back in a heartbeat.” The phone cut out at that moment, and Bob was gone.
Two days later, Bob returned the call. “Did you say you’d do it in a heartbeat?”
Before long, I found myself camped out in a state park in an old FEMA trailer from Hurricane Katrina, running a record label for a park ranger. I was able to make the label my day job and make my own work, the Moon Shine project, on my own time – though the two were totally intertwined. So it ended up being a kind of immersive experience. And the musicians, all of whom were so generous, so welcoming – they adopted me. It felt like I was part of an extended family of musicians, and I was photographing them as well as representing them on their first record release.
Having gotten so close to folks, I started to realize there were certain stories I wanted to tell that I couldn’t do in a photograph. That’s not what photography is about. But having become familiar with people’s life story – and most of these musicians are in their 90s – I wanted to do that aspect justice, too. I wanted to preserve their stories. Also, the grant that had funded my activity at Sandrock Recordings was winding down, and I was in no way ready to leave. So I applied for grant funding to start the Cumberland Gap Folklife Project and set out of my own.
The Cumberland Gap Folklife Project⎯which I ultimately got funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Tennessee Arts Commission⎯consisted of many different parts and programs (all in the interest of preserving traditional arts and music). One of the main components was a big festival. Another is a series of documentary films that I direct and co-produce with my friend Kyle Wilkinson. We simply call it Cumberland Folklife. There are currently five different documentaries: four of 30 minutes length, and one that is a feature-length film titled In That Valley of Gold. All of the films showcase old-time crafts, music, and the life stories of many of the musicians I first met through Sandrock.
So, to finally answer your question… yes, I’ve been busy. But I ended up trying to make a life for myself doing my part to preserve the music and celebrate regional culture while making my photographs. And I have absolutely no regrets.
MK: Do you collaborate with like minded individuals on projects, or do you find it more productive to handle everything yourself? Are there any artistic collaborations in the past that have been particularly beneficial?
RB: I never have collaborated on a photographic project and frankly, that doesn’t really interest me. Never say never, but I really prefer to work alone as a photographer. That said, I do collaborate all the time in other areas. The best artistic collaboration I’ve ever experienced is hands-down my working partnership on the Cumberland Folklife films. Working with my co-producer Kyle Wilkinson has been so wonderful. I find it really helpful to collaborate when you are working on documentary films. That form of storytelling really lends itself to it. Logistically, it just helps to have one person dedicated to the camera and someone else who can really be guiding the person on the other side of the lens. I think it helps your subject to be more comfortable if they have someone to look at, someone who is their dedicated support. Also anytime you incorporate audio it helps to have someone managing that. Audio is so much more important than people expect. Anyway, that all gets to be a lot for one person to do. But beyond that, it’s wonderful to have a sounding board when you are experimenting with all the different ways of telling a story. I so enjoy my collaboration with Kyle; it’s all been a very new way of working for me.
MK: I also wanted to make note of your body of work, Post Script. I find it a fascinating project of documenting the long term effect of changes in our modern society. It’s amazing how a change from the U.S Postal Service, that most people around the country wouldn’t think twice about, can transform a small rural community so dramatically. Was this work born out of that which you were already working on? It seems like a natural transition while staying true to your aesthetic.
RB: Thanks so much for appreciating that work. Honestly, that project really came out of the blue! I first read about the dilemma of the USPS in 2011. I was immediately struck by it. I had absolutely never considered America without its post offices. Like some of the best photographic subjects, it was something I had taken for granted. Post offices are so ubiquitous that they had become invisible to me. Suddenly I wanted to spend some time looking.
I suppose I was primed to identify with the issue because, at the time when I read the article, I was working as a photographic archivist at the Boston Housing Authority, mired in the bureaucracy of a public agency like the postal system.
But perhaps more importantly, I couldn’t help but think of the parallels to my own field of photography. Research taught me that the threat to the postal system is more complicated than simply being caused by the transition from analog to digital, letter-writing to email⎯it actually has just as much to do with political deadlock⎯but that was what initially caught my interest.
I was at a moment when I was reflecting a lot on the analog-to-digital transition in photography and I was feeling impacted by it. I still shoot on film with a 4x5 view camera. As a photographer, I’m always vulnerable to changes in media and technology. I mean, I’m still shooting film and thankfully it is still available, but parts of my practice have become obsolete, or even extinct, in just the short amount of time I’ve been working as a photographer. And I couldn’t help but thinking about how the death of letter-writing and the threatened post offices were a similar to some of what I was experiencing as a photographer in the digital age.
Once I started thinking about it, I realized how alike photographs and letters truly are, in more ways than I had initially considered. From the moment a letter is sealed, or the shutter is clicked, both objects bring messages from the past. As the object arrives, it brings the past into our present, whispering across distance. As each takes flight, the sender relinquishes all control. Their very message relies upon the grasping interpretations of a recipient. Both are full of gaps, filled with mystery and the struggle to communicate across time and space.
I ended up making this a photographic project by focusing on the threatened ZIP codes. That became the conceit by which I could make all this visual and stay true to my voice as a photographer. The ZIP code⎯the numerical identity of place⎯became my window on the rural South. Southern literature was as well, particularly the work of Eudora Welty. As I set out to make work in a new region, female authors guided me through a landscape that was utterly foreign to me. Their words became like shoes, their characters my cloaks. They helped me understand what I saw⎯or at least accept its ultimate mystery.
Eudora Welty became the definitive muse for this project. Her short story Why I Live at the P.O. is arguably the best literary work ever to take place in a rural post office. As I search for threatened post offices and disappearing ZIP codes, her lines coaxed me a long. If ever in doubt, I glanced to my rearview mirror, host to her words on a dangling page: “There’s more mystery in it than I know how to say.”
Really, Post Script was my introduction to the rural South, and I absolutely love working in this region. I’m still always looking for rural post offices with character, even if my work on that project is done. I really learned a lot from that project. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to regard the place of the post office, to really consider what I’d always taken for granted, to look, and think about how the post office defines place.
MK: Clearly, cultural heritage is steeped in the history of the land where you reside. Is it this connection to history that has brought you to teaching history of photography?
RB: Actually, no—but I’m glad that my love of history is evident in my work! I studied the History of Photography with Jim Dow at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts while I was in the combined-degree program. That’s when I really fell in love with the history of the medium. So I’ve been passionate about the history of the medium for some time and I love teaching it. I now live in Nashville and currently teach the History of Photography at Belmont University. The class through the Griffin will begin in March, 2019. I am so looking forward to it. I was actually just working on one of the lectures and thinking about the annihilation of time and space that was caused by the railroad. For those of you that have not read Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows, I highly recommend it!
MK: In addition to being an educator at Belmont University, you’ve recently made arrangements to begin a very comprehensive online photographic history course for the Griffin Museum of Photography. What led to this, and can you give us an idea of what we might expect to discover while taking the course?
RB: It came about very organically, through conversation. I was sitting next to Paula Tognarelli at dinner in New Orleans and I was talking about how much I enjoy teaching the history of the medium. She asked me a class on the spot, and I couldn’t be more thrilled! It really is my favorite thing to teach.
As for what you might expect to discover… well, it wouldn’t be a discovery if I told you! But there will be discovery. That’s fortunately guaranteed. There’s always discovery where there’s curiosity, really.
It’s a pretty classic survey class, so it covers the moment of invention to present. I personally think the invention of photography is more interesting and complicated than people expect. I love thinking hard about how the when-and-where of photography’s origin has permanently shaped its identity as a medium. I mean, it is such a product of the era in which it emerged, and the cusp of the modern era is just a fascinating time. I think students will find that the early history is more interesting than they might expect.
MK: In line with what you are teaching, I wonder if this question is something that you’d like to weigh in on. With the proliferation of digital technology taking over the photography world, there seems to be some pushback from the analog world. We have been witnessing a trend of more and more photographers taking on historical processes. Do you feel this is exactly that, a trend, or that possibly people have a desire to return to the way we used to create work before the pixel took over?
RB: I personally don’t think analog is going anywhere anytime soon. Eventually, but not yet. That may be selfish on my part—I really like my way of working! And I do, of course, think there will be ongoing, constant changes in photographic technology. That’s part of the very nature of the medium: the ever-evolving technology, an endless parade of distinct processes. As photographers, we must adapt.
But there is a very real attachment to analog that persists, and the early 21st century certainly has witnessed a resurgence in alternative processes. If this is “just a trend” it is a fairly significant one.
MK: Your work recently garnered you the PhotoNOLA Prize, during their reviews in New Orleans, in December. Congratulations! What does it mean to you to be recognized in this way?
RB: Oh, it was a real honor and a big surprise. I actually didn’t even know there was a prize—I just went hoping to get feedback on my work—so suffice to say I really was surprised when I got the phone call that I had won! And it certainly meant a lot because there were so many reviewers I respect at the festival.
Beyond the sheer pleasure of recognition, the prize had a lot of tangible benefits, too. For example, I got to work with Mary Virginia Swanson for a year. It was a real privilege to be able to work with her. I learned a lot from her. Her feedback was so always helpful and she genuinely cares—she goes above and beyond every time. The prize also funded a second printing of Post Script—a self-published art book that sold out—so that was lovely. I think it’s just really wonderful that PhotoNOLA offers the award.
MK: Would you like to add some thoughts or advice for those willing to take the plunge into photography as a career? Any words of wisdom?
RB: Go for it! Take risks. Have adventures. How cliche… but I do genuinely feel that way!
Prioritize making the work. Don’t think about recognition. That will only get in the way. Focus on making the work you want to make. That’s your job, first and foremost.
In terms of jobs, be creative. Apply for grants, and not just fine art photography grants. We are all going for those. How does your work relate to another discipline? Supporting myself by applying for traditional and folk arts grants would never have occurred to me, but it’s allowed me to make a living doing what I love.
MK: What’s next for your photography? Are there any new projects we may see come to light in the near future?
RB: I recently joined the team at the Kentucky Documentary Photography Project, so that’s where I will be shifting my focus. Basically, that’s an initiative that funds photographers to go out and document the state every 40 years, taking the FSA years as its starting point. So, I am part of the third installment. I’m thrilled to be a part of it. I’ll be able to make work while considering the historical lineage of the medium and articulating my contemporary response. It’s an honor that I take seriously.