Durham In Changing Light
By John Zager
Backroad Exposures Press
112 pages

Zager will give a talk and sign books this Friday, Aug. 19, at 6 p.m. at the downtown photography gallery Through This Lens, which also hosts an exhibition of Zager’s Durham work. Zager reprises his talk the next evening, Aug. 20, with a slide show and talk at the Regulator Bookshop at 7 p.m.

History has a greater, more emotional significance when one has a personal connection to it. Most often, the historical and personal overlap in a specific place. Once one has lived in a place long enough to witness change, civic and personal history have overwritten each other. One becomes a living document.

With two events this week, photographer John Zager celebrates the publication of Durham In Changing Light, a book of more than 125 recent photographs that amount to a portrait of what Durham is now and how it came to be. The book promises to be a treasure for both the coffee table and the local history shelf. Zager’s crisp, sumptuous images will prompt stories and summon memories in anyone who’s lived in Durham for any length of time.

Durham In Changing Light opens with a black-and-white image that predates the city. A lyrical shot of St. Mary’s Chapel Cemetery links Durham’s origin to the Great Indian Trading Path and the 1850s North Carolina Railroad that linked Hillsborough to Raleigh and included a train station around which the Bull City would eventually grow.

Other historic buildings and sites, such as Bennett Place, the Stagville plantation and the Duke Homestead, are represented with accompanying text by Zager. He also touches on Durham’s crucial role in the civil rights movement and the racist destruction of the Hayti district in the name of 1970s urban renewal. Images of more current cultural changes in the city, such as the rise of the farmers market and the local food movement, will have readers looking for themselves in the pictures.

Zager says the book was born from a personal project to document Durham neighborhoods.

“I decided that I really wanted to immerse myself into Durham,” says Zager over the phone from his new home in Seattle, where he and his wife moved after she finished a degree at Duke.

“I had no intention originally to do a book. I wanted to challenge myself, so I decided to go out over the course of a month and just shoot the neighborhoods and different buildings during the daytime and nighttime, just to see how it changes.”

As it turned out, Zager couldn’t put down the camera. Four obsessive months of shutter clicks passed. “I was out almost every single night. My wife Pooja was a little annoyed about that,” Zager laughs. “But it was a meaningful, exciting project for me.”

Having lived here for only two years, Zager spent enough time in Durham to become an insider while still remaining an outsider. He immediately saw the fact that the city wears its history on its sleeve.

“That impressed me as an outsider coming to the city, realizing that there’s something special going on here. Growing up in Minnesota and then spending time in Seattle, I’ve definitely been around places that have historic buildings. But there’s a lot more preserved in Durham than people realize or appreciate.”

It will be difficult for Zager’s readers to resist unfurling personal examples. For instance, on a cold November night in 2008, my daughter and I huddled beneath an inhospitable drizzle in the park at Corcoran and Main streets in downtown Durham to witness the election of the country’s first black president. A television broadcast was projected onto a huge sheet against the backdrop of the moldering green wall of the old Mr. Shoe building.

How many of us knew that we were celebrating Obama’s election within the footprint of the old Durham Woolworth’s, where black students occupied the lunch counter in 1960 just three days after the “Greensboro Four” sit-ins? Or that, a week later, Martin Luther King visited the Woolworth’s before giving his “Fill up the jails” speech at the White Rock Baptist Church?

Next to a moonlit shot of today’s crumbling green monstrosity, Zager runs down the civil rights significance of what’s now just a run-down eyesore recently heaped on Greenfire Development’s pile of shame, after the city declared the wall too unstable for people to walk within range of falling bricks.

This is exactly the kind of personal and historical reaction that Zager is hoping his photographs will provoke. “People who aren’t familiar with Durham just don’t get that picture. I’ve even met a few people who looked at the book before I printed it, who said, ‘You might want to think about taking that picture out’ and I said, ‘I don’t think I can do that.’

“I feel like it’s such an important structure that was lost, and had a lot of important history and meaning. It shows the impact that we can have, destroying our history.”

Durham In Changing Light stands against that destruction, and the living documents who see this book will likely line up behind it.