For 35 years, photographer Timothy Duffy has forged a unique vision immortalizing Southern musical heroes and the world in which they live. His portraits of many of these musical icons can be seen in the new exhibition, Our Living Past, currently on view at Piedmont Arts.
The exhibit includes 25 black-and-white portraits taken with an early photographic process called tintype, and printed with the platinum/palladium process.
The artists captured by Duffy’s lens range from guitar virtuoso and Allman Brothers Band member Derek Trucks and legendary bluesman Taj Mahal to lesser-known blues and soul artists. The exhibit also includes a musical element, so you can hear the music behind the faces.
“Guests will recognize many of the artists they see here,” said Director of Exhibitions and Marketing Bernadette Moore. “Many are from our region and some have even played in our community,” she said gesturing to a photograph of Dom Flemons and his wife Vania Kinard as they jump the broom on their wedding day. Flemons is a former member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops who performed in Martinsville in 2007.
To capture these portraits, Duffy traveled the American South from Virginia to Florida, covering seven states in all.
Deep in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, where the rich tradition of old-time music flourishes, Duffy found Martha Spencer and her fiddle Smokey. Spencer grew up performing with her family band in Rugby, Virginia, and now delights audiences around the world with the joyous intensity of her singing, dancing, and playing on fiddle, banjo, and guitar.
“Martha and I grew up in the same area of the Blue Ridge,” said Moore. “I feel a deep connection to the music of the mountains, so her portrait makes me think of home.”
In his own home base of Hillsborough, North Carolina, Duffy found R&B music television pioneer Ironing Board Sam. Early in his career, Sam performed for a year at the Club Del Morocco in Nashville, Tennessee, while a promising young guitarist named Jimi Hendrix was playing in the lounge downstairs. He became a true pioneer by performing weekly in the first African American R&B television show, “Night Train,” which was produced by Nashville’s WLAC-TV from 1964 to 1967. “Night Train” was the first television program to feature an all-Black cast and predated the well-known “Soul Train” by five years.
And deep in the Louisiana bayou, Duffy found Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen. Cohen made her living entertaining in New Orleans until Hurricane Katrina took her home in the Ninth Ward. Not one to let tragedy hold her back, Cohen returned to her birthplace in North Carolina and resurrected her career. She is known for her warmth and compassion and often plays virtual gigs for nursing homes to brighten the lives of residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“These portraits not only capture the essence of each artist, they capture a true love of music and community,” said Moore. “You can see it reflected in their eyes, a real passion for what they do, and the love that Tim feels for these artists and the music they make.”
Duffy’s love of music developed at an early age. By the age of 16, he became interested in ethnomusicology, or the study of the music of different cultures, and went on to get his undergraduate degree in the subject. He then trained as a folklorist at the University of North Carolina for his graduate degree.
It was on his travels recording the history of his favorite artists that Duffy was inspired to go beyond his role as an observer and researcher and become an active collaborator with the musicians he sought out.
Seeing how the incredibly rich musical legacy that his favorite artists carried was juxtaposed by the pervasive poverty they often faced, Duffy knew he had to take action. So, in 1994, he and his wife Denise created Music Maker Foundation, a non-profit organization that preserves the musical traditions of the South by directly supporting the musicians who make it.
“Music Maker provides services to artists marginalized by factors such as age, poverty, race, and gender because they are least likely to have the resources to share their music,” said Moore.
In the past 27 years, the foundation has served more than 500 musicians whose work spans the entire history of American music, including blues, gospel, folk, singer-songwriter, Appalachian string band and Native American artists.
Moore says the work Music Maker does makes this exhibit even more important.
“It’s really special to have these portraits in the galleries,” she said. “Tim’s photographs will preserve the musical legacy of these artists for lifetimes, and the work he and Denise do through the foundation will allow future generations to be inspired by the rich musical history of the American South.”
Another photography exhibit, Dear B.J.: Postcards from the Pandemic by L.S. King, features images created using another early photographic process called photogravure. In March of 2020, when social isolation became the normal way of life, King began photographing her neighborhood in Pulaski, Virginia, during her daily walks. Her black-and-white images are accompanied by hand-written postcards, all addressed to a mysterious “B.J.” and signed by “ME.”
Moore says King’s intent is for the viewer to interpret these images and correspondence as it relates to them.
“Who is B.J., who is ME, how do these messages relate to your experience during the pandemic? It’s all subjective. You have to come to your own conclusions.”
King’s images are purposefully reminiscent of the photography prevalent during the 1918 pandemic, specifically Pictorialism.
“Pictorialism was a turn-of-the-20th-century movement that employed photographic manipulation to heighten grain and increase shadows,” said Moore. “This enhances an image’s emotive qualities, and focuses more on the beauty of the image than on capturing reality.”
Local artist Tara Compton has work on display in the Lynwood Artists Gallery. Compton, a painter and jewelry maker, grew up in Martinsville. She recently moved back to the area and has a new studio located on Broad Street.
“Tara is doing some really dynamic work,” said Moore. “She’s using color and shapes in interesting ways.”
“Our Living Past,” “Dear B.J.: Postcards from the Pandemic,” and “Tara Compton” will be on view at Piedmont Arts through March 12. The museum is open to the public Tuesday through Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm. Admission is free of charge.