is always present
By Joe Nolan
December 22, 2009
With his floppy hat, long beard and dangling earring, "Hippie" Jack
Stoddart could be dismissed as an anachronisma holdout from the
Whole Earth movement clinging to bygone traditions. But that would be
a mistake. "Hippie" Jack is a character, all right, but he also has
character. It's on display in the black-and-white photographs that
depict the lives of the Tennessee hill people who have been his
friends and neighbors for the last three decades.
Those photographs make up a remarkable new exhibit at the Tennessee
State Museum, a visual record of the life he chose some 36 years ago.
In 1973, Stoddart and his wife Lynne bought 48 acres on Highland
Mountain in Crawford, Tenn. A mere $7,500 secured the land, the barn
and the cabin where they began their new life in Overton County.
While the Stoddarts were happy to leave behind the rising crime rates
in their home of Miami, there was more to the move than just a change
"I'd studied the practices and processes I wanted to explore, but I
never really had a subject," Stoddart explains on a recent afternoon
walk-through peppered with self-deprecating witticisms, tall tales
and remembrances. "We wanted to document this vanishing culture."
The result, ultimately, was Renaissance Jack: The Work of Jack
StoddartHippies, Hill People & Other Southern Marvels. The exhibit
includes nearly four decades of Stoddart's photography, all
silver-gelatin prints developed from 35mm negatives. Eschewing
larger-format cameras and extensive lighting has enabled Stoddart to
capture his images with spontaneity. Consequently, his low-key
approach no doubt puts the subjects of his candid portraits at ease.
The photographs introduce the friends, neighbors, shopkeepers,
farmers, moonshiners and musicians Stoddart has known throughout his
decades on the mountain. In "The Girls," Stoddart captures a giggling
group of young Mennonite girls, their smiles beaming beneath their
bonnets. The subject of "Uncle Hack" ran a beer joint on Highland
Mountain, while "Claude Ramsey" is described by Stoddart as "a living
museum" who taught him all about global warming way back in 1972.
"He was way ahead of Al," Stoddart deadpans.
In "Hermit Shack," Stoddart captures the exterior of Ramsey's home in
the early '70's. Looking closely, one can discern a washbasin outside
his back door and a number of hand tools leaning against the side of
the house. The image is much sharper than a tintype from the Civil
War, but the scene itself is largely unchanged.
Mainstream America was exposed to the culture of contemporary hill
people in the 1960s through images in Time and Life magazines. While
Stoddart is a fan of the images themselves, he's quick to damn what
he sees as a patronization that is built into the voyeuristic nature
of such projects.
"I feel these people were given short shrift," he explains. "[The
projects'] approach to the whole culture was condescending."
Photos throughout the exhibit demonstrate the Stoddarts' complete
immersion in the culture. In one image, a shirtless Hippie Jack
labors on his farm; an entire block of the exhibit is dedicated to
poignant portraits of Stoddart's children growing up in the country.
Their lives revolved around campfires, grassy meadows and an entire
menagerie of animals that seem as much a part of the family as the
siblings themselves. If not for the kids' contemporary clothing, the
pictures could be 100 years old.
This timeless quality haunts Stoddart's work. He makes a conscious
effort to keep objects like telephone poles and electric lines out of
his images (which he admits is easy to do on Highland Mountain). One
room of the exhibit is dedicated to photographs of the region's
Mennonite communities. With his subjects clad in traditional dresses,
bonnets and hats, the images truly do seem to hold the encroaching
century at bay.
The exhibit also includes images of Nashville, a smattering of
hand-tinted prints, and portraits of musicians such as John Hartford
and Bill Monroe. Hippie Jack's connections to Tennessee's music scene
led to his creation of Jammin' at Hippie Jack's, a festival-based
live music program produced in his barn and at the Tennessee State
Museum's Buffalo Bill Stage. The syndicated show is carried on 115
public television stations, including NPT-Channel 8, and the exhibit
features several monitors displaying performances from the series,
among them John Cowan and the late, great Tim Krekel.
Maybe that sounds ambitious, not to mention modern, for someone
scrupulously devoted to a less accelerated life. But Stoddart sees
his subjects as individuals, not outsider-art collectibles. In "The
Porch," an older woman rocks in a chair on her front porch. Both
rolling tobacco and dipping snuff sit expectantly next to her chair
on the otherwise unoccupied stoop. The wooden siding on her house
runs parallel to the long porch slats, pointing toward a screen door
with a tasteful, decorative frame. Stoddart describes the whole scene
in detail, summing it up with a statement about the "symmetry of
From the woman's amused expression, it seems likely that watching
the world go by was one of the highlights of her day. Perhaps this
aspect of hill culture leads some to mistake "simple living" for
passivity, or ignorance. But in our contemporary urban experiencean
ADD assault of downloadable, economic-fear-based,
partisan-pleasure-driven point-of-purchase distractionsa wealth of
attention to the present moment might do us all a world of good.
Maybe Hippie Jack Stoddart and his subjects are the ones forging a
new model of 21st century life, and we are the ones out of time.