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Photographing Thomas Day:
An Interview with Tim Buchman

By Fred Wasser
(June 2010)

 


Photographer Tim Buchman Photo: Kelly Culpepper

 

Tim Buchman is an architectural photographer based in Charlotte, NC. Buchman took the on-location photographs for the book Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color by Pat Marshall and Jo Leimenstoll (The University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

 

To get this photograph of the Union Tavern/Thomas Day House, how does the light have to ideally fall? Do you want shadow? Do you want full light?
It was summertime. So I knew that this time of year the sun rises north of east. I knew I had to get there very early. As you see in the picture, there’s a soft light coming from left to right. That’s always best – to have a raking light. If you have light that’s flat onto the building, the building has no shape. It’s just like how you do a portrait. If your face is blasted with light, there’s no dimension. You have to have light and shadow.

You want to see the texture in the bricks.
Exactly.

Thomas Day House (Day's home and workshop), Milton, N.C.

Photo: Tim Buchman

You had the camera on a tripod across the street?
Yes. The reason I shot this front-on is because to the left and right were structures that I thought would take away from the property. My idea was to show it as a moment in time. To really be there. There’s nothing contextual that’s 21st century. So for all intents and purposes you’re there in 1865.

What were you after with the newel posts and stairs?
All these Thomas Day newel posts, stairs, and brackets [under the steps] are extremely difficult because the contrast is so high. How do you in one photograph show all this bracket detail, which is white on white, and then at the same time have a newel post -- and most of them were dark, dark, dark woods? Or painted black. So my job then is to create a sense of shape.

Because those s-shapes are Thomas Day’s signature.
That’s right. A lot of the newel posts are elegant and wonderful and whimsical and they just sort of lend themselves to “look at me!” So detailed and bold.

Center Hall Staircase, Bartlett Yancey House
(now the Bartlett Yancey House Restaurant & Gallery)
Yanceyville, N.C.

Photo: Tim Buchman

Like the newel post at the Bartlett Yancey House.
On this particular shot, as I remember, [historic preservationist and author Jo Leimenstoll] said, “I want to see the post, and I want to see the brackets. But I also want to see this rich detail in the background.” My goodness. My one subject all of a sudden turned into three separate photographs in one. Here’s a zone that has to be lit. Here’s a point of interest that has to be lit. And then here’s another point of interest. So in one photograph, there are actually three. And you can also see in the wood, there’s actually grain. There are nails. Scuff marks. All kinds of history from use and wear. So how do you bring that out? 

Does anybody ever say, “This image that you’ve made looks better than the actual thing?”
Yes. Sure. And I think that’s because the camera has a way of taking away all distractions. It clearly focuses your attention on that subject. And that’s why I like black and white over color.

Color is a distraction?
A lot of times I think so. But I also think black and white plays up better in some instances, for how historical this is. It seems to hearken back toward that time period. I think there’s an elegance to it. It brings everything down to its basic design. You’re not distracted by color. Some of these buildings had really crazy wallpaper and designs and patterns and it was a real conflicting sort of thing.

In color the wallpaper stands out instead of the wood.
Yes. With black and white the wallpaper sort of recedes and is not the major player.

And, it’s not Thomas Day’s wallpaper. And it’s probably not the same wallpaper.
Right. It’s probably 1940s or something like that. Some of these photographs were taken in houses that hadn’t seen the light of day for months. Some of the houses had been abandoned. We’d pull up old decrepit shades. Dust furniture. Dust stairs. Dust newel posts. Some of those photographs are my favorites. Peeling paint. It kind of brought you down to the essence of what was really there. And I enjoyed that. No paint. Blistered paint in a house that’s wide open out in the country. But, it was just amazing to me to be in this abandoned house, with this great piece of history and this sense of design. It was sad.

Sad that ---
It wasn’t appreciated. And, sad that it was deteriorating.

 

 

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