The Story behind “The Mountain Stands Still” Series

Here is the story behind my latest photographic series, The Mountain Stands Still, as I shared it on the Smithsonian Magazine Instagram Takeover last month. Please email me if you have any comments or questions regarding my experience photographing in Appalachia as well as Robert and his life, which is still ongoing.

Before I go any further, let me formally introduce you to Robert and his dog, Blackjack. Robert is 74yrs old and has lived in the mountain region of SC/NC his whole life. He is the son of a preacher where his father would have him help with the duties of a small church while growing up. His mother taught him all about herbs and how to use them to cure sickness and help heal the body and mind. One of the first things Robert let me know when we met was how much he loves his dog. He swears by his moonshine (mixed with herbs) as his fountain of youth and the reason he still feels sixteen. I cannot remember everything we talked about on this day that I first photographed him, but one thing that I will not forget was how he told me he lived each day as if it were his last and he meant it. Life is too short, he said, to be lived any other way. I took this photograph directly afterwards.

The landscape where Robert lives is one of the most peaceful places I have ever been. The mountains he is most familiar with are those that stretch from the top of South Carolina into North Carolina in the Appalachian region. I remember taking youth group trips with my church when I was younger to parts around Asheville, NC, but I never saw the areas where Robert showed me until recently. One day while hiking with him, he told me stories about the region I never would have known otherwise. With this, I was able to look at it with a new perspective and a sense of awe and curiosity. My appreciation for the culture and history that surrounds the people that have inhabited this region for generations grew stronger. This is a place that Robert feels deeply connected to and has molded who he is. It is a landscape that he considers to be heavenly.

This series explores the life of a man named Robert and his deep attachment to the landscape and how the passage of time in this terrain has molded his identity.

Our values and what we consider important in life, our quest to define what success or happiness is, and ultimately our character are deeply influenced and profoundly shaped by the terrain in which we surround ourselves.

This photograph was taken on Robert’s farm at the bottom of the mountains in South Carolina in the Appalachian region. Here, Robert stands with his dog Blackjack and next to a hog named Christmas Dinner. Robert gave the hog this name the year before last with the idea that it would be dinner for Christmas that year. But as Robert explained further to me, he gets attached to some of the animals on his farm and they become pets that he cares for and cannot kill or eat. Christmas Dinner is now currently one of his favorite pets on the farm.

Here is a photograph of some of the other pigs on Robert’s farm. He keeps about ten to twenty of these at a time in addition to the hogs.

I took this photograph of Robert as the sun was going down. We talked about the mountains and the land surrounding his house. His kids and grandkids live in houses nearby and he is helping his eldest grandson build his house on the side of the mountain. Lastly, we talked about his love for his wife Marleen and how much he misses her. She passed away a few years ago.

Following the death of his wife, Marleen, Robert placed her things away into one room and all that was left of hers were a few pieces of china in the kitchen and floral wallpaper on the walls. He said it was easier to cope this way. He had her buried on the land in the family cemetery facing the mountain, with his gravestone next to hers where he will join her again someday.

Here is one of the many possessions belonging to Robert. He collects many things. I love the way the light came through the window and fell on this particular object.

It was my Grandfather’s and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it.

The excerpt above is written by William Faulkner, an author of several great works of southern literature. It perfectly matches this moment with Robert when he pulled out a pocket watch his father gave him years ago. It reminded me of how the clock is the symbol of repetition and the continual movement of time and how easy it is to forget how slow or fast it can pass by.

When Marleen fell ill, it was hard for both her and Robert to leave their home and go out to see the folks in town. Robert decided to construct a town of his own using old barn wood, stocking each individual building with items he collected over the years to make each space come alive. He decided that building a town on his land where he took care of Marleen was the most creative way to bring the folks from town to his doorstep. The task of building something with his hands was another reason he explained. And so the quest to build this town piece by piece began.

What began as a quest to bring the folks from town to his land soon became a way for Robert to explore his creativity and use his imagination in ways he never thought. After the town was built, it included a general store, saloon, grocery and vegetable store, a jail, and a doctor pharmacy building lined up side by side like a Hollywood set. Word soon spread and Robert’s town quickly became a place for locals to get together and eat, drink, and play music. Marleen passed away soon after, but not before she could take part in the festivities that were held there on a weekly basis. This town, made from Robert’s imagination and determination to create something from nothing, did more than bring people to see Marleen; it ultimately brought many others together in what would soon serve as a weekly tradition for the locals for years to come.

Here, Robert stands in front of the ‘Opra House’ where the locals get together to play music. Over time, he continues to add more buildings with the town facing the mountain that stands high above the land he lives on. Going into my last day of posting here, I will share a few portraits of the people who come to visit the town.

The decision to combine both my exploration of Robert and the landscape with my curiosity about the town is being left open for now due to the fact that they are so deeply intertwined. It could become two separate projects or be kept as one. Only time will tell as to how the project will continue to unfold.

This is Tom and Roxie.
They are the oldest couple who visit the town and have been coming for years. When I asked them how long they have been together, they said they fell in love as teenagers and have been with each other ever since.

This is Patsy and Mike. They have been playing music at the town for years on a bohren washboard and tambourine.

This is Paulette. She is one of the many folks that visit the town Robert has built on his land. The gathering of the locals here has brought joy to Robert’s life, and is a very unique and fascinating phenomenon. Robert’s connection to the landscape and his commitment to bringing people together over the years is a reflection of what he finds most inspiring and important in his life.

This photograph was taken in Robert’s home at sundown as he gazed at the mountains through the window. It is my favorite.

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