The Design Observer Group


Posted 09.01.11


Alan Thomas

The Blue Corvette



Saltville, Virginia, 2009.

I knew something of Saltville's history, but what brought me back was a Corvette I'd seen the day before, parked at an angle by the main road into town, conspicuous in the way of a car offered for sale. Saltville, Virginia, is a determined but struggling place; almost 40 percent of its people live below the poverty line. During the Civil War it was the main supplier of salt to the Confederacy, and the site of two battles; the first ended with a massacre of wounded black soldiers left behind by retreating Union forces. Historically, the landscape gave nothing up. My ambition for the picture was to describe a blue Corvette in a late summer evening among the southwest Virginia mountains. I showed it the other day to a friend who knew the town well. He looked at the photograph, ignored the car, and pointed: "There's the call center," he said.


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The Shenandoah County Fair is 250 miles further north near Woodstock, Virginia, lately a more prosperous place. I remember that in the '80s they had a burlesque show in a tent at the far corner of the grounds. The fair is bigger and more wholesome now. Last year I noticed that it had become an Army recruiting hub. Teenage recruits were enjoying the rides before heading to basic training. They wore t-shirts with the Army Creed: " ... I am a guardian of freedom and the American way of life. I am an American Soldier."

Back in the southwest corner of the state this August, I visited an encampment of Civil War reenactors in Abingdon. Two 13-year-olds agreed to sit for me. Travis, the taller, wore a Confederate uniform. Kevin had pulled the Union straw. I should come back next week, Travis told me, they were going to reenact the Battle of Saltville.

Three or four of these pictures — the exceptions — were made in a passing instant. At the Oakland Aviation Museum, the camera was already at my eye when a boy jumped to touch the wing of a Korean War-era Chinese fighter. But summer is also a time for slow photography, for places considered over a few days or more. Here is a compilation of mostly unhurried pictures, made between Memorial and Labor Day in an America of lengthening shadows.