Ted Wathen was one-third of a gang of young photographers who traveled the roads of Kentucky in the 1970s, shooting pictures in every county. Now, nearly 40 years later, Wathen examines why travling off the beaten path hits the spot.
From 1975 through 1977 I traveled throughout the state of Kentucky photographing the state during the Bicentennial period. Bill Burke, Bob Hower and I went into each of Kentucky’s 120 counties recording what moved us, what one wouldn’t see if we weren’t there to record it. Our work was shown at a number of museums in the early 1980’s, including the Smithsonian, where a number of our prints reside. Two years ago this work was revived as Rough Road: The Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project, 1975-1977 by the Frazier History Museum in Louisville Kentucky.
I make my living as a commercial photographer. My work varies from product photography to coal mines. I like what I do because it’s varied. No day is the same as the day before.
My favorite ongoing commercial project is documenting the creation of a 22-mile-long linear park in Louisville, The Parklands at Floyds Fork. On a recent visit I photographed stone masons doing dry laid stone surrounds on culverts. The lead mason, Rigoberto Aguilar, told me that he worked for his brother’s company, Aguilar Stone Masonry; he lives in Shelby County and his brother lives in Harrison County, Kentucky.
I love the road less traveled. In mid-October I traveled from Louisville to Morehead, Kentucky, to attend the opening of Rough Road: The Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project 1975-1977 at the Kentucky Folk Art Center. Rather than take the direct interstate route, I branched north to Cynthiana then over to Carlisle and Flemingsburg before landing in Morehead.
I stopped in Broadwell to photograph a one-room schoolhouse in the pouring rain. Walking from my car to the schoolhouse, I saw a portable sign reading Aguilar Stone Masonry at the intersection of State Road 353 and US 62. Nestled in the corner lot was either a doublewide trailer or manufactured home that had been skinned in dry-laid stone. The lot was surrounded by stone fences, with stone arches, well surrounds and other indications of the stone mason’s craft. I had stumbled on the home of Cecil Aguilar, owner of Aguilar Stone Masonry.
I continued on to Cynthiana whose presence was announced by Walmart, a strip mall, big box Rite Aid, Hardee’s and other franchise restaurants. Cynthiana is one of those delightful outer Bluegrass county seats that thrived at the turn of the 20th century and on into the early 1960’s. The architecture bears a strong resemblance to what one would find in the Shenandoah Valley. The buildings are intact, appear to be kept up, but a great number of the commercial spaces are either vacant, their business having been sucked dry by the franchises and the Walmart Supercenter at the edge of town, or now occupied by martial arts and dance studios, beauty shops and health-aid businesses. The formerly grand bank buildings were added onto in the 1960’s, then abandoned when the banks were absorbed by larger banks.
Carlisle was my next stop. It’s far enough away from the interstate and larger towns that it still has a semblance of downtown retail activity. A row of buildings has been restored and are waiting for tenants.
Flemingsburg has a new, big high school and a new downtown justice center next to the county courthouse. The center of town seems unchanged from my last visit 38 years ago, with the exception of the new justice center.
In rural Kentucky one of the most evident things are the falling down tobacco barns and the pastures of the small farms that are no longer farms; the pastures have grown up in cedar. Tobacco was king 38 years ago, now it’s a crop that you have to look to find. With the tobacco settlement and the elimination of each farmer’s tobacco base, which guaranteed a cash return, the small farms in Kentucky have died. You can’t make a living with 100 acres. You could do that before.
The death of the small farmer has led to inexpensive agricultural land. Kentucky has seen an influx of Amish and Mennonite farmers. They are able to survive on less, not bearing the material burdens that the “English” feel they have to have. I love driving in Mennonite areas and seeing the signs bearing scriptural quotes. They are all the same size with the same typeface, white letters on a green field.
Back to the Aguilars. If there were any Hispanics in Kentucky 38 years ago, they were probably teaching Spanish in the local high school. Now Hispanics are the predominant agricultural and manual labor workers. They’re setting down roots and doing well. Cecil Aguilar’s business extends throughout the state. He has a long term contract to do all of the stone work in the park I’m documenting. Food quality has improved throughout Kentucky . . . you can find a Mexican restaurant in almost every county seat.
Morehead has changed. There’s a Japanese restaurant. The train tracks don’t go through the middle of town anymore. I met a Chinese student at my opening. A middle aged woman from Nova Scotia told me she was at Morehead State University studying traditional music. I met professors from Connecticut, California and Wisconsin. Thirty-eight years ago most of the professors and almost all of the students would have been from Kentucky.
My partners and I want to go back and photograph Kentucky anew. From 1975 through ’77 we looked at the state through the eyes of young men. We’re older now, we see differently. We want to see what the state looks like now . . . before the arthritis really sets in.
Photographer Ted Wathen lives in Louisville, Kentucky. His work has been exhibited at venues such as the George Eastman House, the International Center of Photography and the White House.