It’s an origin story of happenstance and timing, but then these things often are. I started testing my self-taught photography knowledge against the old family Nikkormat about five years ago, and I found a local shop that still developed and scanned film. Every other week I’d drop off a few rolls and pick up my last batch of negatives and scans. My drive home took me through a neighborhood I’d never had occasion to pass through in my decade in Arlington. The houses were old, and while I am usually drawn to things with a bit of patina, there are plenty of old homes around here, so that couldn’t explain why these houses made such a strong impression.
Roll by roll, week by week, I became more confident with the camera and after poring over my thumbnails in the parking lot, I felt myself fighting a growing urge to stop and make pictures of these houses. One time, as I drove past, I saw that one of my favorite farmhouses had become a charred ruin since my last visit. I didn’t know these people, I didn’t know the story of the house, but I felt this loss like a physical punch to the gut. I had the Nikkormat at my side loaded, presciently, with redscale, and a need to memorialize the shell that was left behind strong enough to push me past my nervousness at photographing in a way that could be perceived as intrusive. I made a few quick photos of what still stood, ran back to my car, and drove home.
That first time made the next time a little bit easier – not easy – but easier. I started making a point of photographing at least one or two of these houses every time I picked up film. Soon my rolls had more images of vernacular architecture than they did of my kids or the miscellany of my life and the guy at the photo shop asked, “What’s the deal with all of the houses? Are you into real estate?”
“No, I just like them,” I replied. I wasn’t sure enough of myself – either in my photographic ability or my intent to expand, but the houses spoke me, and I listened. Ultimately that is what’s at the heart of any passion project. You just listen to that inner voice when it commands you to begin.
Not too long after that interchange at the photo shop I read that the neighborhoods I’d been photographing, Hall’s Hill and Highview Park were historic. They were the first Northern Virginia enclave settled by freed slaves in the post-Civil War period, and the area had been cut off from adjacent neighborhoods by an 8 foot fence up until the 1950’s. When I began photographing, some of the houses dated back to the neighborhood’s origins and many of the residents were descendants of the original landowners. Today many of those older homes are gone, not victims of fire, thank goodness, but of infill redevelopment. It’s happening all over the County, as in so many long-built, ring suburbs of re-energizing cities. Homes are valued at a fraction of the land upon which they sit, taxes continue to increase at record rates since they’re pegged to increasing property values, and long-time residents find themselves priced out of the market.
So five years on, I haven’t stopped building my archive of Northern Virginia vernacular architecture – farmhouses, bungalows, mini brick faux Tudors, even shotgun shacks. In fact, I’ve expanded it, taking every opportunity to wander down unfamiliar side streets in search of homes that beckon. More and more of the County’s older homes are razed each year. Many are in serious disrepair, or truly weren’t built to last, others are really solid, but simply far smaller than what the market desires.
The new houses that replace them tower over their neighbors casting long shadows, both physically and metaphorically. The homes I photograph tell the unique history of this place – of it’s roots in farming, it’s once legally segregated neighborhoods, and it’s post-WW2 boom. When I moved here in 2000, you could see traces of it all. I’m not sure how much longer that will be the case, and so when the houses speak, I listen.
What calls out to you?
If you are interested in seeing more of these houses, the link above will take you to an online portfolio.