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Roan Mountain Hilltoppers at Fiddler’s Grove, 2003 • Union Grove, Iredell County, N.C.

Hands in Harmony: Photographer Tim Barnwell ’77 explores the world of traditional crafts and music in Appalachia

by Melissa Stanz

Tim Barnwell ’77 is an explorer. But instead of sailing the high seas and discovering unknown lands, he reveals the beauty of his own Appalachian backyard through stunning black-and-white photography. These photos have been the key to a life well-lived, filled with curiosity that keeps this alumnus focused on his life’s work.

Photography is an excuse to explore things, people, situations and ideas”

Barnwell’s third book of fine art photography, Hands in Harmony: Traditional Crafts and Music in Appalachia (W.W. Norton & Co., 2009), is a collection of 80 portraits. The images were taken over a period of 30 years and feature musicians and craftspeople in their homes, studios, shops or in concert. A music CD with 22 songs from the musicians featured in the book is included with the text.


Etta Baker with electric guitar, 2005 • Morganton, Burke County, N.C. • Recipient of NEA’s National Heritage Fellowship in 1991.

Hands in Harmony follows two earlier books, The Face of Appalachia: Portraits from the Mountain Farm (W.W. Norton & Co., 2003) and On Earth’s Furrowed Brow: The Appalachian Farm in Photographs (W.W. Norton & Co., 2007).

“The highest compliment to me is not that I’ve flattered the person, but that someone else in their family will look at it and say, ‘That looks just like them,’ because I’ve captured something in their face or in their personality that comes through,” Barnwell said. “That’s the goal.”

And it’s a goal that he has achieved time and time again. In addition to the three books, Barnwell has published more than 1,000 photos in magazines ranging from Time and Newsweek to Billboard and American Style. His work has been widely exhibited across the United States and abroad and is in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the SOHO Photo Gallery and the New Orleans Museum of Art, among others.

Want to see more of Barnwell’s images?

Visit the Asheville Art Museum’s Holden Community Gallery through October 10 to see 30 prints on display from Hands in Harmony. Several special events have also been planned in conjunction with the exhibition. For a complete schedule, go to ashevilleart.org.

With such an impressive résumé, it’s hard to believe that Barnwell is a self-taught artist, who credits an influential professor for steering him toward photography. Barnwell had plans to be a chemist when he enrolled at UNC Asheville. But his adviser, avid photographer and political science professor Goetz Wolff, urged Barnwell to take some of his classes and to get involved taking photos on campus. Barnwell wound up switching majors and shooting for the Ridge Runner student newspaper and the yearbook. He rounded out his schedule with courses in literature and interdisciplinary studies.

I just have a love of the medium because I think it strips away that veneer of color and you are really seeing the essence of the photograph”

“My liberal arts education gave me a lot of flexibility, and it really taught me how to teach myself and how to learn. And that’s more important than the particular degree I got,” Barnwell reflected. “Photography is an excuse to explore things, people, situations and ideas. And I think that all plays into the liberal arts education.”

Upon graduation, Barnwell used his liberal arts background and natural curiosity to launch his photography career. He began by working in a camera store and eventually founded and served as director of the Appalachian Photographic Workshops in Asheville. Later, he created Tim Barnwell Photography, shooting color commercial photos and fine art images. Today, Barnwell is best known for his striking black-and-white photos of Appalachian people and places.

“I just have a love of the medium because I think it strips away that veneer of color and you are really seeing the essence of the photograph,” said Barnwell, who shoots primarily with a 4x5 large-format camera.

Though he has a studio in downtown Asheville, Barnwell tends to work in the basement darkroom of his east Asheville home. From there he heads out for shoots across Western North Carolina and the Southern Appalachians, capturing iconic cultural images. He’s approached farmers working with horses in their Madison County fields to legendary musicians tuning up backstage before playing for an audience of thousands. In each case, Barnwell said, the subjects have been not only cooperative but fascinating.

He summed up his process of meeting and documenting people and places by saying, “My job as a documentary photographer is to realize what is unique and try to capture that and do it in a way that is photographically interesting as well.”

Barnwell is currently at work on his next book, a collection of black-and-white images of post offices, churches, barber shops and other businesses that serve as the building blocks of small communities.

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