Landscape With Artifact

By  J.C. Gabel |  March 5, 2012

This past October, I traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, to meet a man named Timothy Hursley. Hursley is one of the foremost architectural photographers in America, and his portfolio includes images of buildings by Frank Gehry, Moshe Safdie, and I.M. Pei. These photos aim to understand and render visible the architect’s intent: the play of light on a cornice, the shadows of a sunset on a facade. Yet if Hursley’s work is subtle, it’s also essential and beautiful. For many people, the only time they will ever see one of, say, Gehry’s or Safdie’s buildings—most of which are scattered far apart across America and the world—is in a Hursley photo. In other words, when you look at a piece of art by one of America’s famed architects, you’re often, unknowingly, also looking at a work of art by Timothy Hursley.

Mild-mannered—and almost Zen-like—Hursley is the consummate obsessive photographer. On an average workday, he will log fourteen hours of shooting.

When you are with Hursley, discovery lurks around every corner or, at least, past the next stoplight. As soon as he sees something he would like to photograph, he will park the car, methodically set up his tripod, and, almost without a sound, begin shooting. He is so stealthy, he almost disappears into the scene. This contrasts to the way he shoots buildings for architects, which requires hours, perfect lighting, and loads of cumbersome equipment. Both processes are formulaic and meticulous, but the noncommercial work, Hursley says, “brings him a certain amount of joy” that his other work doesn’t.

Since he picked up a camera in his late teens, Hursley has been drawn to taking pictures of humble environments: brothels in Nevada, polygamist communities in Utah, and, of late,  funeral homes and weatherworn farm equipment.

On the day I visit him, he allows me to join him on a mission to photograph a silo in Hale County, Alabama. Hursley explains that in addition to wanting to photograph the structure, he had also decided to buy it (for $2,000): “To save it from being discarded for scrap-metal parts.”

Hursley’s battered 1999 Ford Explorer is littered with empty cigarette packs and film packaging. Along with us is Hursley’s former assistant, Nathan Kirkman—Hursley wants Kirkman’s help setting up a surveillance camera to photograph and transmit images of the silo and the surrounding landscape on the Internet.

“On its face, this all does sound crazy,” says Hursley, who is wearing a faded green coat and has a neat goatee and ashen-white hair, “until you see the landscape that surrounds the silo.”

Hursley says that when he first spotted the silo, “It spoke to me.” To him, it is a piece of sculpture, and by capturing hundreds of thousands of images on a surveillance camera and broadcasting them on the Internet, he hopes to share the beauty of this “sculpture” with viewers who will never come to Greensboro, Alabama.

Yet, as we near the silo and park at a home nearby, the structure stands flaccid, broken in half by the weather and shadowing the landscape. It doesn’t look like much.

“It sort of reminds me,” Hursley says, “of something out of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds.”

Hursley got his start back in suburban Detroit, where he grew up. His brother worked as an assistant for the Hungarian architectural photographer Balthazar Korab, and, as a teenager, Hursley raked the leaves in Korab’s yard, “but it ended up a photo apprenticeship. I developed an abstract style, which I took into architecture. My time with Korab—throughout most of the ’70s—those were my formative years.”

After moving to Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1980, Hursley—whose brother, Greg, at one time was also an architectural photographer working in Arkansas—set up his photo studio, The Arkansas Office. But not everyone agreed with his decision to move South. “Korab told me I was leaving a prestigious studio for the boonies,” Hursley says. “But I’ve always held a deep gratitude for his mentorship and the window into the world of architecture and photography he provided.”

Hursley soon began to shoot regularly for legendary architects, such as Safdie and Gehry.

Then, in 1990, on a photo shoot in Canton, Mississippi, Hursley met the architect Samuel Mockbee. Mockbee would soon launch the Rural Studio, as part of the architecture program at Auburn University, which focused on the design and construction of modest, innovative homes for poor people in Hale County, Alabama. Mockbee and Hursley became friends, and, every few months, Hursley would drive from Little Rock to document Mockbee’s growing vision—houses, buildings, and public-works projects.

This led to Hursley’s 2002 book, Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and an Architecture of Decency (with text by Andrea Oppenheimer Dean). The book captures Mockbee’s dazzling innovation: Salvaged road signs and fluted glass create an elegant shack, nine hundred discarded tires and repurposed pine boards form a soaring chapel.

Twenty-two years after Hursley met Mockbee, Hursley still rambles around Hale County with his camera, with company or alone (Mockbee died in 2001). That’s how, five years ago, he found the silo.

As we pull up to Towana Harris’s property—where the silo is located adjacent to a small house, a trailer, and a horse farm—Hursley makes clear he doesn’t want us to invade anyone’s privacy. He has been very careful not to come off as a patronizing Yank. Fortunately, Towana and her family are happy to accommodate Hursley’s far-flung experiment—even if they also seem puzzled by the photographer’s idea to set up a “silo cam” in their backyard.

“Tim seems to know what he’s doing, buying that broken-down thing out back,” says one of Towana’s granddaughters. “He seems obsessed with the weather around these parts.”

We are joined by several Rural Studio members: Andrew Freear, an ex-pat from Yorkshire, England, who has taken Mockbee’s place as director, and two recent graduates of the program, Jamie Sartory and Cameron Acheson. With their assistance, Kirkman begins setting up a PC in the trailer next door and discretely running cords out the window up to the silo about two hundred and fifty feet away.

After conferring with Towana by phone—letting her know they will have to call the power company to put in a new power box—Hursley leads us around to the backyard. Acheson, Sartory, and I begin to dig trenches.

Besides Towana’s family in the trailer next door, who quickly get used to us popping in and out of the house and surrounding property, we’re alone in the landscape for the next few days.

In between sweaty rounds of digging, we smoke cigarettes, but, really, there is little time to rest.

While Hursley’s silo project may mystify others—hell, me—those at the Rural Studio share the photographer’s vision. “The silo is a beautiful act of God,” says Freear in his syrupy British accent. “It’s a fantastic thing to see. It looks tortured, desperate, like it was hit by something. It actually looks like a giant has gone and pushed it over.”

Hursley, for his part, can’t contain his enthusiasm. “I’m interested in setting up additional surveillance on the other projects I have found here in the South,” he says. The silo is “part of a lost, but not forgotten, industrial ‘war of the worlds’”—a war between the worlds of the old, industrial South that needed its grain silos, and a post-industrial economy that for the most part doesn’t.

So I have to ask: What does Hursley plan to do with this sixty-foot-tall artifact?

“If there was some interest,” Hursley ponders, “I’d love to have this sitting in the lobby of some famous modern-art museum like MoMA in New York or the Tate Modern in London.”

Later that day, Freear introduces Hursley at the Red Barn, a workshop in downtown Newbern, Alabama, where the Rural Studio students build prototypes of churches and cabins. Hursley gives a talk about his career as an architectural photographer and takes over a computer to cycle through thirty-five years of images, projecting them on the wall of the workshop. He starts with some snapshots from the Palladium, the infamous New York nightclub, from 1985. Around that same time, Hursley visited Warhol to photograph his “Factory” between 1983 and Warhol’s death in 1987. A few years later, Hursley also began photographing a series of Nevada brothels, places like Starlight Ranch and Pussy Cat Saloon, publishing the results in a coffee-table book, Brothels of Nevada.

In the last few years, Hursley’s big jobs have included a series for the Smithsonian, the High Museum, the Nasher Sculpture Center, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, and the Marina Bay Sands resort in Singapore. The pictures he shows today are of the newly remodeled Israel Museum in Jerusalem. He closes with an abstract series on driftwood gathered on vacation at a Michigan lakefront.

Later that week, Hursley takes Kirkman and me on a midnight sidetrip. Twenty miles or so outside of Greensboro, we roll up to a lonely building. “Funeral homes are easy to spot,” Hursley says. “There is usually a hearse parked out front or in back.”

He sets up his tripod and camera in the middle of the road, so as to capture a black hearse parked next to a yellow house. No one seems to notice that we’re here, not even after thirty minutes in the middle of the street, late at night. At one point, Hursley, Kirkman, and I form a huddle to discuss our story in case we encounter the police.

Hursley has been shooting funeral homes for the past year. “It started in Helena, Arkansas,” he says. “Jeanie [my wife] and I took a trip in the late winter to see the flooding from the Mississippi River.” No photos resulted from that trip, but while driving around he was struck by the image of two hearses parked in a decaying downtown strip.

After that, Hursley explains, he began to search out funeral homes—in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, and elsewhere. “Like the brothels series, where commerce merges with sex,” he says, “in the case of these Southern funeral homes, commerce merges with death.”

Most of Friday morning is spent re-digging the trench leading from the new power box to silo cam “No. 1,” as we’ve taken to calling it. We bury the USB cables and power cords leading from Towana’s trailer to a mounted pole out back. Kirkman adjusts the surveillance camera. Because the owners of the trailer have two pit bulls, somebody tells us to sprinkle black pepper along the dirt trail leading from the house to the silo cam to “throw off the dogs.”

By midafternoon, the silo cam is finally operational.

After thanking the Rural Studio crew for their help, we get back en route to Birmingham. And immediately find another funeral home.

Hursley talks his way inside and spends an hour shooting before we move on to several more locations scattered throughout our drive. Fatigued, Kirkman and I—both of us half Hursley’s age—insist that we stop for dinner.

The next morning, Hursley is up at dawn, ready for more.

Hursley’s career has been characterized by these work habits and his incessant curiosity. And this, maybe, is what connects his seemingly disparate images of funeral homes and brothels with his more majestic architectural work: It’s all part of the same long drive to catalog the man-made landscape of America.

The silo is the most recent addition to his thirty-year odyssey. “If this camera takes a picture of my Hale County silo every thirty seconds for the next year,” Hursley says, “it won’t be long before the rest of the world, via the Internet, will learn to appreciate it the way I have.”

See the silo for yourself!