Dale Mackey talks to an Outer Banks photographer about the comfort of photographing in small towns and the nature of truth.
Photographer John Tully moved around a lot growing up. As the child of a military family, Tully lived in five different states before entering college. These frequent moves meant that Tully often felt like an outsider, never fitting in to the communities he’d inevitably leave. His series Smalltown Landscapes explores what Tully imagines his life might have been like if he’d grown up in one place.
Daily Yonder: Where did you grow up? Tell us a little bit about your background.
John Tully: If I could, I’d say I’m from Bethlehem, New Hampshire, in the heart of the White Mountains. That is always the constant place where I return throughout my life. It’s a small town with a blinking light at the intersection with roads that lead on to mountains, to forests and rivers, and to so many memories. I guess a more accurate answer is I am a "military brat." But that’s kind of like writing off a lot of transitions that have shaped my life to this point. That’s the abbreviated version. I’m not sure where I’m from so much as where I’ve lived: Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Virginia, Hawaii, California, back to Virginia, college in Missouri, Denmark, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C., Michigan and New Hampshire.
DY: Where do you live now?
JT: I live about a mile from the ocean on the shifting sands of the Outer Banks in North Carolina. For those who are unfamiliar, the Outer Banks is a chain of barrier islands on the eastern coast of North Carolina. We moved here a year ago after I got laid off from a newspaper and my girlfriend and I were ready to make some changes while quietly focusing on photography.
DM: When did you first start taking pictures?
JT: I started with photography back in high school. In English class we had a project to shadow someone at a profession we thought was interesting. Photography seemed like a way I could experience the world so I wrote to a few publications in the D.C. area. My local newspaper was the one to extend an invitation. I was 14 at the time and they invited me to keep going back, so I did. When I got my license I was on my own covering assignments. I look back at my introduction being more about learning the technical, composition, light, instead of learning people.
My perception of photography has almost done a 180 since. I went through a phase where I thought photography could make a difference and that there was a definitive truth. Like so many others, I followed a path set by people before me: go to college, study journalism, do internships, enter contests, do workshops, learn, graduate, work at small newspapers, cut my teeth, move up. Routine. Security. Predictability. So I thought. Back then, my ultimate goal was to be a foreign correspondent. The world has changed. I have changed. I graduated college in 2008 right when newspaper layoffs were becoming rampant across the industry. I managed to dodge them for about five years.
DY: Tell us about the series Smalltown Landscapes. How did it begin?
JT: I’m happiest photographing in small towns for so many reasons. The people, the land and open spaces, the dynamics of a community and the microcosm of American societies; it’s all there. My professional background is in journalism, so I’m use to spending time getting to know people and powering through awkward moments or becoming vulnerable so people know everything is all right. I’ve spent some really intimate moments with people making their photograph during the peaks and valleys that make up life. It’s a lot of responsibility, and I see that more clearly now looking back. I’m so fortunate to have that experience. I’ve never felt like I’m above the essence of what journalism is and should be. Frankly, I never felt like I reached anywhere close to achieving that point of making a difference in someone’s life through photographs. Smalltown Landscapes is my realization of how I see myself in the world and embracing it rather than trying to fight it. I’m more comfortable backed off, as an observer of a scene and a sea of moments of a time and space rather than trying to gain intimate access to tell a brief snippet of an individual’s life.
Working closely with a photo editor has been spotty at best these last five years so a recent hang out and conversation with some photographers dove really deep into this idea of reality and truth. I realized that no matter how hard I convinced myself something was the truth – the moment, the way I saw reality – someone was going to perceive it differently in accordance with their truth based on their background. It became apparent that I wanted to make a stand so much and wanted to make a difference that I was forcing people to see something the way I thought it should be. With Smalltown Landscapes, I didn’t want to force a narrative as much as have people reach an understanding on their own from whatever they know to be true. I didn’t have to attempt to fit into a box or a scene to try and exist as a photographer.
DY: On your website, you write that one aim of the series is to “catch a glimpse and piece together what my life may have looked like in a small town.” Can you elaborate on this a little?
JT: It’s challenging to grow up moving around a lot. Trivial, I know, in comparison to so many alternative experiences that exist for people throughout the world. But it’s one experience that I know and can relate to that extends my entire life. It’s been there from day one so it’s my normal, but it never gets easier. Moving means you have to get acquainted with a new area, say goodbye to wonderful friends and make new friends, build relationships, then you leave it all. Repeat. If you end up somewhere like military housing, it’s only a matter of time until someone moves away. It’s more a blessing than a curse, though. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I got to experience so much growing up and have an awesome sister who was going through the same challenges, so we weren’t alone. I think photography was a pretty natural direction. I’ve made some incredible friends and I think this industry attracts or forces transience on its practitioners.
But moving can feel like you’re always on the outside looking in at a community. So Smalltown Landscapes is inspired by my day-dreaming of how my life could have been. Not that I would change anything, but there was a time where I always wondered, "What if?" The circumstances we are born into and surround ourselves with often control how we view the world and move through it — or [how we] are allowed to move through it. The older I become, the more aware I am that my life was void of this kind of seemingly stable community where I could return.
I imagine what it would be like to visit home and know my neighbors like family. I wonder what it would be like to be so ingrained in a community that I know everyone. With our recent move to the Outer Banks, I’m finding little pieces of it here, or maybe I’m a little more aware of where to find it. A sense of community, as one time Flint Journal photographer Steve Jessmore called it, was so interesting to me and is probably why I was drawn into community journalism. I thought it would be a ticket into a world I didn’t really know. And it goes deeper than calling someone a friend. It seems like a belonging.
Q: Why are you drawn to small towns?
I just kind of ended up there along the road and the people and space kept drawing me back. There was always something appealing to me in stories about the old wise person in a community, like Santiago from “The Old Man and the Sea.” To the outside world, it is a simple life, but there is so much complexity easily disregarded when comparing it to something seemingly extraordinary or sensational. We’re almost conditioned that way these days. I’ve wanted to travel around the world, chase adventure, cheat death, but that pull and desire kept me from realizing what was in front of me this whole time and the adventures that I already have experienced.
Q: Many of the photos in the series seem a bit idealized or nostalgic. Am I reading them correctly, and if so, is that a choice you’ve made or just a reflection of how you perceive these places?
That’s interesting because for a while I was always living in another space other than the present. In my mind that is. I longed for the past or made elaborate plans for the future. When they didn’t work out, I blamed the present, a feeling of being stuck, and myself. So I’ve always battled with nostalgia and until recently, I battled with finding contentment. I think the idealization is less about presenting something as unreal or perfect and more about just presenting something with an absence of sensationalism, opinion, or visual crutch. It’s not one way or another, it just is a scene where I put myself.
When I was in elementary school, my mom gave me a book on Norman Rockwell, and he’s always stuck with me because he was really the first creative I have a conscious memory of. That and Roald Dahl. The scenes were always very idealized renditions of a perceived reality, yet also hinted at something deeper and more nuanced by society at the time portrayed. I feel like the older I get, the more I want to keep exploring these backroads and wade in the waters rather than continually trying to jump into a raging river.