Every year, the world Brian Brown documents fades a little more. On his blogs and Instagram accounts, he photographs the rural small towns that have died — or are just barely hanging on. His photographs freeze the memories for us, even as the buildings crumble into ruin.
At 4:50 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon, the main commercial stretch of Union Point, Georgia is empty: not a person or car in sight, except for the one that brought me here. I hear the distant droning of an airplane and, closer by, the sound of cicadas. Weeds grow in the cracks of the sidewalks outside the old 1940s-era Union Theater around the corner, and the big clock at the far end of the block is stopped at 12:44. The only business still open is Broad Street Finance, where Jelitta Hall and manager Sally Adams wait for 5 o’clock to come. There are no customers.
Most people would look at this and see nothing remotely Instagram-worthy. But that’s what draws Brian Brown. His specialty is taking pictures of places most people ignore, places in the process of disappearing from a modern world that barely registers their passing. There are hundreds of such towns across the South, some so well-preserved and post-apocalyptic looking that they’re used for movie or television shoots. (Grantville, in Georgia’s Coweta County, has been used as a backdrop for “The Walking Dead.”) Not so long ago, they were centers of vital agrarian or manufacturing communities. And then interstate highways, rural-to-urban migration, and the rise of industrial agriculture and the global economy and a half-dozen other economic factors suddenly coalesced in the late 20th century to create a perfect tsunami of social change, rendering these towns suddenly obsolete, or at least struggling to justify their existence.
Every week, this historian of the ordinary posts his discoveries for some 100,000 subscribers to his blogs: “Vanishing South Georgia,” “Vanishing North Georgia” and “Vanishing Coastal Georgia.” These photographs of tobacco barns, roadside motels, tenant shacks, gas stations, and farmhouses are a visual elegy for jobs that no longer exist and places where people lived, worked their land, worshipped, traded, celebrated, buried their dead, and otherwise went about their lives while epic events took place elsewhere.
“When I’m documenting an old tenant house, I feel like this is a world I don’t even know,” Brown says. “I can’t imagine living in a two-room house with six or eight other people with no air conditioning and working out in fields all day in 100-degree weather and coming into a house that’s no cooler. There’s a reverence to it. It helps you respect what those people went through, and how hard their lives were.” He pauses. “It’s voyeuristic, in a way.”
At 47, Brown is a somewhat shy but engaging man with a still-boyish smile and salt-and-pepper brown hair. He lives with fellow photographer Mike McCall and their aging beagle, Sadie, somewhere in Georgia south of the Gnat Line (which thanks to climate change is now well north of Macon, he points out). He does not say exactly where his home is, and on the day we meet — a warm summer morning which eventually delivers, in buckets, on its promise of rain — I don’t press him. Behind the friendly demeanor, I sense a carefully maintained zoned of privacy.
We meet at the courthouse in Sparta, Georgia, one of Brown’s favorite places. Sparta has a magnificent courthouse, an up-to-code restoration of an 1880s-era edifice that burned down in 2014. (Fortunately, the county had fire insurance.) Begun as a stagecoach stop on the Macon-to-Augusta road in the late 18th century, it grew to prominence in the early 19th century as Hancock County grew rich on the slave labor of the plantation economy. By 1825, it was important enough for the aging Marquis de Lafayette to visit on his post-Revolutionary War grand victory lap of the United States, and today it boasts half a dozen antebellum and late 19th-century homes of architectural note. But despite its historical riches, Sparta is poor by every other measure. It’s the seat of Hancock County, whose 30 percent poverty rate is more than double the national average. Its impressive courthouse presides over a street lined with vacant storefronts.
Sparta was one of the first towns Brown came to know when he started “Vanishing South Georgia” in 2006. A history major who graduated from Georgia College in Milledgeville, he’d already tried teaching (“I hated it”) and working for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (“very boring”) at a park in Irwinville, where Jefferson Davis was captured by Union forces at the end of the Civil War. He moved to Atlanta and found work at an upscale hotel in Vinings, just across the Chattahoochee River from the city. Then came the end of a relationship and a sense that the life he’d been living — work by day, bars and restaurants by night, falling asleep on an apartment sofa watching TV — felt profoundly disconnected from anything real. In his mid-30s, he found himself drawn back to his hometown, Fitzgerald, in Ben Hill County.
The Brown family roots go deep in Ben Hill County; his father’s family has owned farmland there for generations, although his grandparents were the last generation to actually live on the farm. Fitzgerald in the 1970s was “the kind of place where I sat on the front porch with my grandmothers in their old Victorian house and watched the traffic go by, because it was right in town, and your neighbors on the next porch sat outside, too.” His father worked for CSX, which meant he traveled a lot; his mother was a homemaker and substitute teacher. Brown spent lots of time at the home of his grandmother and great-grandmother, and much of it was spent porch-sitting, listening to the kind of meandering conversations that porches tend to spawn — chats about the connections between the present and the past: whose family was from where, the history of a particular building, how things had been when they were growing up. One of his neighbors was Beth Davis, the local historian who founded Fitzgerald’s Blue & Gray Museum, and he spent hours listening to her stories of the town’s odd, late 19th-century founding as a Southern haven for Union veterans of the Civil War. It was, though he didn’t know it, early training as a historian.
So, in 2006, at a crossroads in his life, he found himself back in Fitzgerald, going on long drives, taking pictures of buildings in the area that interested him — an oddball hobby that would eventually spawn a day job (a commercial photography business). In the meantime, it indulged his interest in local history and architecture. Somewhere along the line, a blog was born.
The idea wasn’t entirely original: Tenant shacks and rural landscapes have engaged artists and writers before — most notably in Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era photographs of Dust Bowl refugees, Walker Evans’ portraits of Alabama tenant-farmer families, and the rural Alabama landscapes of William Christenberry. Since then, the digital era has given anybody with a smartphone the tools to be a passable photographer, and all those newly minted photographers have been looking around for things to shoot.
One of those things has been the kind of architecture that is rarely called “architecture” — buildings constructed by ordinary people, untrained but frequently skilled craftsmen, who used local materials and reflected regional needs and cultural traditions. Vernacular architecture, as it’s called, recognizes that an abandoned pine shack, once home to a tenant farmer, can tell us as much about the past as a whole row of stately antebellum mansions.
“There were lots of photographers in Georgia at the time on Flickr doing similar things,” Brown told me, and a website called Ghosts of North Dakota was exploring comparable themes in that state. Brown set out to tweak this emerging genre by creating a site that delved more deeply into the history of what he photographed and also systematically archived the pictures and updated the information — much of it crowdsourced — as it became available. In a deeper sense, he wanted to put his region on the map.
“When you typed ‘South Georgia’ into Google 10 years ago, you got pictures of the island in the Antarctic,” he said. “I wanted to create an identity for South Georgia.”
When Union Army Gen. William Sherman passed through this fertile swath of middle Georgia in the winter of 1864, he managed to feed his 60,000-man army just from what they scavenged along the way. The fruits of the land were so plentiful that the army’s mules arrived in Savannah fatter than when they left Atlanta. Today, a traveler on the same route in midsummer is hard pressed to find a decent home-grown tomato.
From our politically polarized perspective, the agrarian culture that once characterized this region looks like either a long nightmare of slavery, poverty, apartheid, violence, and intolerance — or the kitschy version of the past you see celebrated on the walls of any Cracker Barrel. But it’s possible to talk about its virtues without ignoring its sins, and there were virtues.
By the beginning of the 20th century, for instance, Georgia had roughly a dozen major passenger railroads serving all corners of the state. (The 1912 annual report of just one of those companies, the Central of Georgia, boasted nearly 2,000 miles of rail.) Small towns were what today’s urban planners call mixed-income communities — neighborhoods where stores were in walking distance and houses had verandas or porches, which besides helping people cool off also promoted community engagement. The houses were not hermetically sealed McMansions set atop some denuded hill; they were built to a human scale and in a working partnership with nature — designed in ways that maximized air flow and took advantage of nature’s own air conditioning, otherwise known as shade trees. Everybody practiced what we now call “sustainable agriculture,” which was then known as “the backyard garden,” and what wasn’t grown there usually grew within a five-mile radius.
All of these are concepts that urban planners with advanced degrees are trying to reinvent artificially these days, using tags like “new urbanism” and “new agrarianism” and the merits of food that is “farm-to-table.” Underneath those trendy phrases is the growing recognition that the heavily fertilized, monocultural, genetically modified crops produced by today’s industrial agriculture not only creates inferior food — bland tomatoes, mushy peaches, strawberries the size of pingpong balls with absolutely no taste — but also depletes the soil and poisons the bodies of humans and animals.
And it has wreaked devastation on rural America. The rural-to-urban migration, set in motion by the Industrial Revolution and launched into warp speed by corporate interests and the forces of globalization, is something most of us take for granted. It’s possible to travel the width and breadth of the United States today without ever leaving your corporate cocoon, shuttling from one chain restaurant and hotel to another.
But there are some of us with rural roots who miss a connection we once had to the land. I feel it; one of my earliest memories is of the way the freshly turned earth felt under my bare feet as I followed my grandfather down the row he was plowing with his mule, Becky. (He owned a tractor; he just preferred Becky.) That memory now makes me feel like a time traveler. Brown knows the feeling.
“It all seems so ancient to me,” he says. “Sharecropper shacks, cabins — I think they’re some of our last tangible evidence of the cultural South that I was among the last generation to grow up in.… I can’t imagine trailer parks, strip malls, and prefab housing evoking any nostalgia.”
Brown’s ambition is to cover as much of the state as he can, documenting buildings that are particularly good examples of distinctively Southern architectural styles — “saddle-bag” houses, for instance, with two front rooms separated by a central hallway; plantation houses — not the tourist version — with their tin roofs and walls of weathered pine, or pyramid-roof houses. But “vernacular architecture” encompasses a little bit of everything: churches, art deco movie theaters, 1910-era storefronts, jails, barbecue joints. Brown keeps careful records and updates his websites as he gathers new information. So far, he estimates he has roughly 125,000 pictures on file. Sometimes people contact him with information that fills in a piece of the picture. My uncle used to own that store, they will say. Or, I used to play in that house as a little girl.
“I can show people these really grand columns, houses that look like the South that never really existed,” Brown says, and sometimes he does; there are plenty of lovely homes in rural Georgia deserving of remembrance. “But I get way more traffic from [photographs of] old tenant houses, and comments like, ‘Those were hard times but the best times of my life’ and ‘That looks like my grandma’s house.’”
Every year, the world Brown documents fades a little more. Old barns and country stores were hard to find 10 years ago; today, he says, “they’re really hard.” He can name half a dozen towns across the state in the 25,000-to-50,000 population range that are just barely hanging on. The commentary on his blogs rarely says so outright — every local chamber of commerce fiercely defends its image as The Next Big Thing — but it’s true.
“In most towns of that size range, it seems like the only thing I see when I drive into this town are thrift stores, junk stores, title pawns, and maybe a motel. Even in the ’80s they had a downtown — but now everything’s a Walmart,” Brown says. “When you ask people what would make the town better, nobody has a clue. We are in a transitional era.”
We have been here before. “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born,” Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci once wrote. “In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” He was referring to the rise of fascism in Europe, but it applies just as well to today.
I can envision a world where such towns could flourish again — a world where broadband internet is universally available and all those passenger rail lines from a century ago magically reappear, a world in which a skilled software developer could collaborate in real time with his colleagues in Manhattan while sitting in his kitchen in Bleckley County, or a janitor who lives in Hogansville could commute every day to his job in Buckhead.
In fact, there’s been talk of high-speed rail in Georgia for years, but nothing’s come of it — and rural access to broadband is a massive undertaking that would cost billions. We have the money, but lack the will; there is no President Franklin Delano Roosevelt around these days with the power of cajoling us out of our paralysis or helping us to see that such investments pay enormous dividends. Maybe future generations will see our preoccupation with a mythical past as the thing that prevented us from making use of our real history. If so, searches for “South Georgia” will turn up something besides glaciers. We will have photographic evidence of what we lost. We have Brian Brown.