When I was growing up in Texas, certain things had a habit of eluding me. Like autumn.
Here's how "fall" usually went down in my small corner of the Lone Star State. You would wake up one November morning, waddle outside in flip flops, and swear you were stuck in summer -- 85 with a side of hair-raising humidly. Then, with the forcefulness and commanding presence of a strong Texas woman, an overnight cold front would barrel through town, ushering in seasonal change like a bull in a china shop. The next morning, every still-green leaf would be on the ground and the Fahrenheit would be somewhere in the 40s, where it would fluctuate flirtatiously for a week or two before completely committing to something more winter-ish.
It wasn't until I moved north ten years ago that I realized fall is a process, not an event. It's the slow build to sweater weather. The soft simmer of stews on the stove. The gradual intensification of autumnal hues -- both in the sky and on the trees.
In a word, it's beautiful -- a calm, rewarding transition from color to cold.
Recently, a deck of photos of Ohio's Village of Zoar drifted (note: intentional fall pun) into my inbox at work. They came from Andy Donaldson, an avid shutterbug I met on Flickr who has a well-documented passion for this historic village -- a National Treasure that was listed just this summer as one of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
Andy is an amazingly talented guy, and his photos always make me take a pause. These, however, elicited a different type of response. Before my jaw had even finished dropping, I was forwarding them to friends and family with this message: "These pictures make me want to roll around in leaves, carve pumpkins, and drink Chai until I’m sick!"
Now, depending on where you hang your hat, I realize this may be what your backyard looks like right now. If that's the case, bear with me because I couldn't help but share these photos and the conversation I had with the photographer himself, if only for my fellow Texans who are still in flip flops.
Andy, how long has the Village of Zoar been your muse? What about it speaks to you?
We moved into our house about seven years ago, and that was when I was getting into photography. In the olden days, you know, the 80’s, I was very much into photography, especially black and white. Purchasing my first digital SLR camera, though, really opened up a whole new avenue of creativity for me.
Being that we live so close to Zoar -- literally within walking distance -- going there to capture its beauty has become a habit. The village speaks to me because it’s a reminder of how our country was founded -- people coming together in search of freedom and a chance to live their dreams.
Your portfolio captures Zoar in every season. Tell us: what’s special about fall in the village?
Fall has always been my favorite season. Zoar is a picturesque setting regardless of the time of the year, but with the changing colors in the trees and the lighting typical of this time of the year, it’s just downright magical. I normally only have the chance to get to Zoar in the evening after my day job, which makes it difficult sometimes. However, for these photos, I was able to get out in the middle of the day and first thing in the morning. They perfectly capture the color and light that I love.
Tell us about your typical day photographic the village. Is there a spot that no trip to Zoar is complete without visiting?
To be honest, there’s no typical day when I go shooting in the village. It’s usually a spur of the moment thing, either just to take the dog for a walk or because I glance out the window and see how the light looks with the setting sun.
As someone who goes down there often, it’s the Number One House that draws me in. It stands in the middle of town like a grand castle. But for someone who is visiting for the first time, I highly recommend going to Village Hall. There is a museum dedicated to the history of Zoar and visitors can see old maps, old pictures (my favorite part, of course), and other items from the town’s incredible history.
We often hear stories about people turning to photography -- even as amateurs -- as a way to celebrate places they love. In that regard and given your long history with the village, do you think Zoar has made you a better photographer?
Yes, without a doubt. One thing that digital photography gives you that we didn’t have back in the days of using rolls of film is the chance to try different things with your shots. And also with a digital camera like mine, I can see what my shots look like right then and there without having to go to the lab, have the film developed, and then hope for the best.
I’ve found that having Zoar in my backyard allows me to try things and test new techniques, and if I don’t like it, I can go back and try again. Its buildings, homes, and gardens inspire me. They aren’t going anywhere, right? Let’s hope not.
That’s a good segue for my next question. Looking at the beautiful colors of your fall photos, many people would probably be surprised to learn that the future of Zoar is uncertain. As you know, record flooding in recent years has raised concerns about the integrity of a nearby levee that protects the village. And one alternative under consideration is removing that levee entirely, which could require the relocation or demolition of 80% of this remarkable place. How does that make you feel about your hobby as the unofficial photographer of this 200-year-old village?
Well, thank you for the kind words, but I don’t know if I can be considered the unofficial photographer of the village. However, I am a concerned resident and neighbor of the village -- someone who has fallen in love with the subtle charm of the town and would hate to see the wrong decision made about its future.
At the end of the day, do you think great photography can help save a place?
Definitely. When things started looking bad for Zoar, that’s what sparked my desire to start shooting there more frequently.
I remember Easter morning of 2008 all too well. I was out in the driveway with my dog and noticed several large trucks hauling long trailers into the village. I later found out that the trucks were hauling in stones to fix part of the levee that was failing. It was looking pretty bad and residents were warned to take valuables to the highest level of their homes or to just get out all together. Luckily, the repairs held and the town was safe.
That was when I got more serious about trying to capture how I see the village, and therefore, why I would hate to see it be lost. Like Ansel Adams, whose early work sparked interest in the American west and inspired me to go to Yosemite when I was young, what I am trying to do when I walk around town or tour one of the buildings is capture something that will inspire someone else. And hopefully, because of that inspiration, people will take action to help save this amazing place.