Ken Abbott first visited Hickory Nut Gap Farm in 2004, as a chaperone for his daughter’s class field trip, and was intrigued by the mix of history and contemporary life he found on the Fairview, North Carolina property, where five generations of family have lived and worked. He soon began photographing in the farm’s Big House, a former inn, and recording the life that goes on around it. The pictures became his series “Useful Work: Photographs of Hickory Nut Gap Farm,” a book published by Goosepen, and traveling exhibition now on view at Duke University Center for Documentary Studies, until September 10. The images record the easy the beauty of the lush landscape and ancient farm—there is a delicate study of green pastures in a snowstorm and an image framing the side of a wooden smokehouse, where old and new logs meet in roughly carved dovetail joinery. But more often, Abbott finds grace in the challenge of living with history. A woman reads a magazine at the kitchen table, under a wall hung with painted portraits and a thick coating of pinned photographs, a hundred years of birthday parties and baby pictures. A white picket fence seems to rise and fall in alignment with the mountains behind it, but the pure abstract shapes are interrupted by rugs hanging out to dry.
In an image that seems to define the series for Abbott, a silver pitcher sits on a blue laminate kitchen counter, dented and set among dirty dishes. Abbott writes about making that image, and learning that the pitcher had been used every day for 90 years to bring water from the springhouse to the table. “For me, one of the great lessons of the Big House and family is that we should honor beauty, and our past, and reach toward intimacy with our given place. Like a camera lens the pitcher focuses the family story. Yet, despite its qualities, the picture remains also a simple reminder that there are dishes to wash, and work to do.” Sharing that work, he writes, has been an act of love.
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Shopping for Lost Memories
Gabriela Herman’s Career-Changing Organic Farm Project (for PDN subscribers; login required)