John Lusk Hathaway is adjusting. Having only recently moved to Charleston, the Lowcountry's landscapes aren't quite what the photographer is used to. There aren't any mountainous horizon lines or snowy backdrops. While his previous bodies of work display the muted tones of dreary Tennessee skies, he'll have to make do with Charleston's 300-plus days of sunshine.
Hathaway permanently moved to the Lowcountry in August, and since his wife gave birth to their second daughter in October, he hasn't had much time to delve into the arts community in town. But he's probably out there now, even as you read this, researching subjects and developing contacts, maybe with his camera in tow.
Hathaway earned his MFA from East Tennessee State University this past May. During his time at the school, he produced series like Reason for the Season, a wintry look at tree farming, and Lost State of Franklin, which highlights Tennessee's people and landscapes. Over the last few years, Hathaway has been fascinated with the evolution of industrialization and the way a culture adapts to it — a problem that modern Appalachia is currently facing. That theme comes out clearly in his work.
Hathaway spent most of his youth in the northeast Corner of Tennessee, specifically in Johnson City. The town, with its strong history of blazing trails with fierce individualism, is bordered by the Appalachian Mountains, and Hathaway knew he wanted to make a body of work that reflected that region. "Modern Appalachia was always an interest for me, in that change of culture," he says. While the older generation may be desperate to maintain its past, the new one has pushed its history away. "You can still find pockets of really rural Appalachia, but I'm not really interested in that. I want to show something that hasn't been shown before, something that is more current."
His work is unquestionably modern. His work is comprised of contrasts between public land and private land, new roads and ancient mountains, wealthy vacationers and not-so-wealthy locals. They'll also see a 12-year-old girl covered in camouflage and an ex-con sitting silently by a stream, his prison swastika tattoo exposed. "When I look at land or landscape, I see people," Hathaway says. "There's very rarely you can look at land anymore and not see some kind of human interaction with that land. Even a natural pristine environment is only that way because we made the ability to keep it that way."
And while the landscape may be different, Hathaway is already finding many similarities between the swampy Lowcountry and woodsy Appalachia. "There's definitely a parallel between Appalachia and the land and some of the land around here, because it's so valuable for vacationers," he says. "A lot of the land in Appalachia has been bought up and turned into resorts, golf course communities, and it's the same thing around here."
Which is why Hathaway has been knocking on doors around Sol Legare Road, focusing on the people there. "It's one of the only areas with that kind of access to intracoastal water and deep water that has maintained a presence," Hathaway explains. "Most of that land has been bought up and there are multimillion dollar homes. I've always found it interesting that they've been able to hold onto that, and it's because they're such a strong, close-knit community." He's also intrigued by some of Charleston's more authentic landscapes, like those on Wadmalaw, Johns, and James islands.
He photographed a recent Civil War re-enactment near Sol Legare and met some of the community's elders. "I've rarely taken my camera out there, because I don't want to be forceful," he says. "I want it to be an organic thing, a process that happens." He wants to develop friendships first. "They're cautious. There is cautious optimism, I would say. I think at first they're kind of standoffish because they have been exploited in the past and they don't know what my goal is."
He's in the process of applying for a U.S. artist grant to continue this work. Ultimately, he'd like to also include a documentary component in the project. "There's the oral tradition too," he adds. "You can't really show that in a photograph. It's got to be a time-based medium."
And while Charleston may not yet know his name, Hathaway is finding attention on a national scale. In October, Savannah College of Art and Design professor and photographer Jeff Rich chose Hathaway's work for Eyes on the South, a weekly series on the Oxford American's website that highlights Southern photographers. Photos from Reason for the Season will be included in an upcoming post for NPR's Picture Show. He's also interested in securing a book deal, and hopefully finding a place to exhibit his work in Charleston. "Anytime I'm working in an area, I like to be a part of the community," he says. "It's not like I'm just going in and taking some pictures and taking them with me and I'm out. It's something that I'd definitely like to be part of. I'd like for them to be able to share in the experience."
To learn more, visit johnluskhathaway.com.