Rachel Boillot is a New York photographer who has, for now, adopted east Tennessee as home. She tells the Yonder about rural post offices, old time hill music, and having a song written about her by a flea market troubadour.
Daily Yonder: Where did you grow up? Tell us a little bit about your background.
Rachel Boillot: I grew up in New York, mostly living in a suburb of the city called Rye. There I experienced very little sense of place or attachment to land. Most residents are transplants from Manhattan. There was always something missing. I also spent time abroad as a child. We moved to Singapore when I was 8 years old. I loved it there. I had an entirely new world to explore barefoot. That said, living there – a wonderful life experience – also failed to ground me. We were expatriates in a rapidly changing nation, one that barely maintains its own culture due to its status as a former colony now become international hub. We thereafter returned to Rye. I am grateful for a most privileged middle-class upbringing, but the spaces the American middle-class inhabit left me wanting.
Where do you live now?
I now live in Cumberland Gap, Tennessee. I’ve embraced the rural South. Though I’ll never be “from here” or truly ever “home”, I love my adopted homeland more than I’ve loved any other place that I have lived. Take that as you will. I don’t know how long I will be here. None of us can predict the future. All I know is that living in Cumberland Gap currently feeds my soul and artistic practice in all the ways necessary. I certainly never expected to land here, but perhaps the beauty of it. I’ve discovered something in me and in this place that I didn’t know was there.
How did you get into photography?
I fell into photography, really. It was an accident, just like the best photographs are. I needed to take an art class and didn’t think I could do anything else. And, frankly, the darkroom seemed kind of mysterious. So I took a class. It wasn’t long before this creative medium that had never been on my before took over my life. I had always fancied myself a writer. Many photographers pursue that path before discovering the visual language of photography.
When I went to college, I wasn’t confident enough to go to art school and pursue photography. It was my absolute passion, but I didn’t think I was good enough or would ever be able to make a living doing it. One morning – I guess it was morning – one of my undergraduate mentors, Roswell Angier, discovered me curled up resting while my prints rinsed after yet another all-nighter in the darkroom. I had learned how to sneak past the college’s security to stay all night. Soon thereafter, Roswell called me into his office. He encouraged me to study photography more seriously – it was what I was spending all my time and energy on, anyways.
We spoke of a concern that reached beyond my basic insecurity. I was worried that it was fundamentally selfish to do what I loved and embrace my passion. It would make me happy, but what would it do for others? For that reason, if I pursued photography, I planned to become a photojournalist and make images that would rouse audiences to enact social change. My disillusionment with photojournalism and the capacity for pictures to directly call for action is another story. For now, let’s end with the fact that I chose to study photography more formally at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts alongside my liberal arts education at Tufts University. And I thrived. Studying in both places, I thrived. The rest isn’t history – it’s my life today. A whole lot of pictures born of love.
Tell us a little about the series “Post Script.” How did it begin, how do you talk about it?
Post Script began with the same sense of incredulity at the ordinary that many photographic projects do. That moment when you look at what you have always walked passed, and suddenly stop to consider it.
Growing up, I had never given post offices a second thought. They were simply there, ubiquitous in the landscape. Then, in 2011, I read a New York Times article about the plight of today’s USPS. Thousands of post offices are closing, mostly in rural communities. It was like a call to attention to a child’s bedroom corner. It’s always been there in view, taken for granted.
I think I was also particularly intrigued by this story because, at the time, I happened to be working in a federal office tied by its bureaucratic structure. I had taken a job as a photographic archivist at the Boston Housing Authority. I was interested in how these federal, bureaucratic systems play a significant, often under-interrogated, role in contemporary American society.
I was also contemplating the role of the photograph in contemporary society. During my undergraduate studies, I had learned to shoot 4×5 sheet film with a view camera. I adored this way of working. I felt like I had finally found my voice. I struggled to perfect my technique as a color darkroom printer, only for the color darkroom to become obsolete in my last year of schooling. So, I was really thinking about shifts in media during the digital revolution. The analog to digital transition had rendered some very significant parts of my practice obsolete. Was this perhaps evident elsewhere, affecting many more individuals than myself? And, of course, it most certainly was.
I knew I wanted to pursue this photographically in some fashion. Unfortunately, I found my visual creativity flummoxed by the post office: so many of them are boring, standardized structures. I was not interested in doing a Becher-like typology.
I ultimately found my project’s foothold in the notion of disappearing ZIP codes. As mentioned, rural communities are losing their post offices first, though they rely on them the most. With the loss of a ZIP code, the town loses its original presence on the American map. I began to realize that ZIP codes were almost symbols for place identity, the numerical identity of place.
And finally, I realized how similar photographs and letters are. Both travel across time and space, bearing some sort of narrative. Their mysterious message is ultimately up to the interpretation of the viewer, or whoever is on the receiving end of their trajectory.
It seems like you especially drawn to working in small towns? If that’s true, why?
Well, as I’ve said, that’s where I live now, and I’ve really been drawn to the attachment to land and history that exists in these postage-stamp sized communities.
How would you describe your work to someone unfamiliar with it?
I would tell them that my work is about mysterious narrative impulses at time in history when the ways we communicate are shifting rapidly. I would also tell them that at the end of the day, it’s just a bunch of pictures. My language is coached in aesthetics. What I am thinking about in a literal fashion might not translate. And that’s okay, with me, at least.
Also, I should add here that I’ve made peace with the question of selfishness, in terms of pursuing my passion as an artist. In the process of making my work, I’ve touched a number of people. I’m not bragging by any means in stating that, I’m as surprised by it as anyone. But these moments of connection have had a lasting impact on me and the people I photograph, whether it be strangers encountered in a certain ZIP code during Post Script, of the intimate meetings I have had with folks while working on Silent Ballad. Those depicted in Silent Ballad are truly my adopted family, and my attention to their lifestyle brings them great joy. That means the world to me. The photographs might not sell in the art market, but it meant something to someone to have their picture made. I value that more than an image that can enact social change, because I don’t think a single photograph can alter the course of political events in the way it did in the Vietnam era. We live in a different time and visual culture now.
Talk a bit about Silent Ballad. How did you get interested in old time music in east Tennessee?
Well, with Post Script, I had this wacky idea, based on research, that evolved as I made research into pictures. Silent Ballad was totally different. I really just fell into it. There was a call for a photographer to work in East Tennessee for two months – the summer after I graduated from Duke. I needed a job and I like making pictures more than anything on this earth. So, I applied and was lucky enough to get it. I had no idea what I was getting into. I had some vague idea that it was a project of states parks and related to musical heritage.
Bob Fulcher, Park Manager of the Cumberland Trail State Park, wasted no time filling me in on the people I was to photograph. He was pretty surprised I knew nothing about old-time music, but just did his best to bring me up to speed. Turns out the Cumberland Trail is the only park in the entire world with its own record label, Sandrock Recordings. Bob needed a photographer to do document the musicians represented by the label, most of whom he’d known for decades, playing music alongside them. He has spent the past forty years championing the great old-time musicians of this area, like Clyde Davenport, for example.
In spite of having absolutely no knowledge of old-time music or musical talent myself, I fell in love with the people I met. I was really enamored with the sound of old-time music and loved learning about this new world, which a new host of friends tenderly shared with me. When I left the region as planned two months later, I felt like I had left my heart behind.
I had work in North Carolina already slated for that year, I was working on another photographic commission (that turned into the Despues del Dia project) and teaching at Duke. But I missed everyone I had met that summer, and kept listening to the music with longing.
Bob called me up as I was literally moving into a new apartment, having just signed the lease. “I’m in a bit of pickle,” he said. “I need an audio engineer for Sandrock.” I remember this so vividly. I said, “Well, I’m not an audio engineer, but I’d come back in a heartbeat.” Before Bobby could respond, he drove out of cell range, and the call was lost. Three days later, he called back. “Did you say you’d do it in a heartbeat?”
I moved back in May 2015 and I’ve been here ever since. And now I can say that I spent two years running a record label for a park ranger.
What stories stand out when you think about your time working on the project?
I became a filmmaker! I secured funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Tennessee Arts Commission to direct and co-produce a series of documentary films. I called Kyle Wilkinson, who was about to graduate from Duke’s MFA|EDA program. I just rang him up and asked if he would work on the project with me. And together we are producing the Cumberland Folklife series of documentary films. He’s also Chief Editor & Cinematographer on the project. It’s been a wonderful experience for me to collaborate with another artist for the first time. With my photography, I always work alone. We filmed Evelene in the last months of her life. And her little sister, Opal, who will be 95 years old on New Year’s Day, has become another adopted mother figure. Our documentary on the Sharp family is the one we are finishing first. We’re deep into post-production and will submit to film festivals this year. You can see more of the work at www.cumberlandfolklife.com.
Let’s see, other stories from my time working on Silent Ballad… well, I had a song written about me. That was pretty neat. The Knoxville News Sentinel wanted to do a story that first summer about Sandrock Recordings and some of the documentation that was being done. So Bobby sent me over to meet and interview Curtis Byrge. We got little Curtis – who is a legally blind ballad singer Oak Ridge, he walks to the flea market every Saturday to perform – we got little Curtis on the front page of the Knoxville News Sentinel. He was so tickled to death he wrote a song about me. I didn’t know it until Bobby heard him sing it at the flea market one day and made a video on his iPhone.
Another family that is featured in the photographs and the films is the McCarroll family, the descendants of the old-time legend Fiddling Jimmy McCarroll, who recorded with the Roane County Ramblers in 1928-29. I met the McCarrolls first. I got to spend time with Tom McCarroll in his last year of life. His daughter Tammie has been wonderful to me; she’s a strong woman who has really looked out for me. And I cherish that. I honestly thought Charlie, Tom’s younger brother, would go before Tom. He was real sick when I met him. He had contracted internal gangrene. I knew something was wrong, so I started checking in on him daily, even though I only photographed him that first day I met him. He was pretty close to death the last time I saw him at home. I didn’t know what to do. Honestly, he wanted to die. He was that sick. And I wasn’t sure that he would ever recover, or be the sort of person to adjust to a nursing home. He’s always been real quiet. So, I didn’t know what the right thing to do was. You know, you think about saving human life, but what about if the life left isn’t going to be enjoyable? What if it’s going to be really painful? Sometimes, maybe, it’s just best to go. But I went ahead and called Tammie. It was a rough spell there for a while after he was hospitalized. I really didn’t know if I’d done the right thing. But I am so, so glad to say that he rebounded. He is still alive and fiddling away in a nursing home in Loudon. And he lived to have his first CD released on Sandrock Recordings. After Tom died in September 2015, Tammie started playing back-up guitar to his fiddling. Seeing them play together just fills my heart.