Preserving History through Art

Categories: Blog
Why This Matters: Through photographic documentation, ASC grant recipient Nancy O. Albert records the history of North Carolina tobacco barns to ensure access for future generations.
By Giovanna Torres
Communications & Marketing Coordinator

Imagine constantly running against time to make a visual record of endangered historic structures. After all, if there is no record, how will future generations know they ever existed or what they meant?

This is the work that documentary photographer and ASC grant recipient Nancy O. Albert undertakes. Inspired by the great documentarians of the 1930’s, she started documenting the built environment 30 years ago. Her dad, who was an amateur photographer, taught her the basics. As she was looking for something to photograph, the grace and simplicity of vernacular structures caught her attention, bringing back memories of her childhood.

“Why don’t I start with what I know rather than something exotic and let’s see where it takes me,” she thought.

“[The mills] were everywhere, and I had family that worked in the mills,” explained Albert, who grew up in the textile town of Holyoke, Massachusetts, and lived in the Connecticut River Valley, known for its historic mills. While in school, she researched the history of the old mill towns and began documenting them. Later on, while she pursued her master’s degree at Wesleyan University, she continued “documenting pretty much everything that I thought was disappearing.

Albert moved to North Carolina in December 2005, not knowing what to expect.

“I thought when I moved to Charlotte there would be textile mills left but they were pretty much gone,” she said, “but I discovered though that there were a lot of barns.”

Tobacco Barns, Bladen County

In fact, Albert was pleasantly surprised by the “really good” records that North Carolina has of its historic buildings. A series of three books called “A Guide to the Historic Architecture of North Carolina” by Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, (she is now working with Southern on his Celebrate Tobacco Barns site, part of North Carolina Department Of Natural And Cultural Resources) became her guide.

“I used them as my bible,” she said. “I bought a road atlas and I started plotting out little areas I wanted to explore. I thought this would be a good way to get to know the state, and it was. I do a lot of research. Geographically, North Carolina is such a big state, so I have to plan it really carefully.”

Once settled in the Queen City and having taken pictures of a few tobacco barns, Albert applied for and was selected as one of nine regional artists for ASC’s 2016 Community Supported Arts program. Her focus for the original artwork she created for the program was North Carolina tobacco barns. She photographed more than 100 barns and 50 individual images of those went to CSA shareholders.

A $1,500 Regional Artist Project Grant from ASC in 2017 allowed her to purchase a laptop with photographic editing software to help her in her future documentation of structures once commonplace in North Carolina’s landscape.

Nancy O. Albert working on her individual barns photographs for ASC’s Community Supported Art program. Photo by Kris Solow.

Tobacco is closely tied to North Carolina’s history and has traditionally been one of the state’s most important industries. North Carolina without tobacco barns, it has been said, would be like Holland without windmills.

But historical background is not the only thing Albert captures through her lens. There’s also a personal aspect.

“They’re family farms, most of them were hand built. I’ve met people that were third generation farmers,” said Albert, who has been approached by people who want to show her family barns and share their history so she can document it.

“It feels personal sometimes. I work alone, it’s sort of a solitary endeavor to go out and do the research, but then when you meet people, everybody that I’ve met seemed to be happy that I was interested in their history and that I wanted to record these.”

Like the textile mills, many North Carolina barns are rapidly disappearing or in ruins. Some of the structures she photographed two years ago have fallen down. Others are completely gone.

Nash County, conjoined barns

The losses are enough to make Albert wonder sometimes why she keeps doing this work. But then she remembers, somebody needs to do it. And so, in November, Albert will travel and explore the eastern part of the state to continue documenting the history of the tobacco barns in North Carolina, preserving history to ensure access for future generations.

“I know that life working at a tobacco farm or textile mills was not pleasant and it was hard, sometimes people don’t want to remember that history that may have been painful,” she said. “It was rough and difficult…but there was a culture that emerged from that and people (should) value it because that’s their past.”