I knew almost nothing about Billy Barnes when I was asked to interview him and select some of his photographs for a spread in the Independent, but 10 short minutes into our conversation I started to think: This guy is a North Carolina state treasure.
Billy, a native of Winston-Salem, is charming and exceedingly modest; our conversation felt less like an interview and more like a chat you have with someone while you wait to have your tires rotated. But the Southern charm and humility belie a lifetime of achievement that, at age 74, doesn’t seem to be letting up. At this point, Billy’s hasn’t done list might be shorter than his has done. Self-trained photographer, writer, filmmaker, musician … I’m sure there’s a lot more, but that’s all we got to in two and a half hours. I felt like we had barely scratched the surface concerning his tenure in Terry Sanford’s North Carolina Fund when we were interrupted by his home phone, and then his cell phone ringing. It was his wife of 52 years, former N.C. State Rep. Anne Barnes. Billy had the volume jacked up so high on his phone I was privy to the entire conversation. Apparently, Anne’s steering wheel had locked up in the parking lot of the Chapel Hill Library. “OK,” he said, “I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
Maybe I was being overly sentimental due to my own marriage slated for this summer, but I was very touched by this simple interaction. He helped me gather my things and then posed for a few quick headshots under the cedar tree in front of their Chapel Hill home. Nothing like picking a master photographer’s brain for nearly three hours, then sheepishly snapping his picture like grandma does when you’re leaving for the airport.
Billy Barnes currently has a photo exhibit up at Durham’s American Tobacco Campus, Bay #7. The exhibit is part of the WUNC (91.5 FM) radio series North Carolina Voices–Understanding Poverty that started Monday and runs through April 22. The exhibit consists of a selection of photographs from the ’60s taken while Barnes was at the North Carolina Fund, contrasted with a recent series made this year. The black and white prints are gorgeous and reminiscent of the classic documentary style of the Farm Security Administration photographers (Dorthea Lange, Walker Evans, etc.) from the 1930s. Billy told me he was a little surprised by the renewed interest in this work, but again, that’s just Billy being modest. The truly surprising thing is that, for most of us, this will be our first glimpse at these amazing photographs.
To see more photos online and to learn more about the WUNC series, go to www.wunc.org/special/poverty .
Independent: How did you get into photography?
Barnes: I graduated from Carolina in ’57. I was a little bit older than the usual graduate because I had spent three years in the Marine Corps during the Korean War right in the middle of my college career. The job I took when I graduated was with McGraw/Hill Publishing Company in New York, which at the time published about 41 magazines, all of them in the business world, starting off with Business Week and going down to Coal Age, National Petroleum News and so forth. The sent me to Atlanta, one of their 21 news bureaus, to head the news bureau down there.
Was that a wire service, like AP?
I was beholden to the editors of those magazines in New York. It was up to me to keep them happy. I had a boss in New York, but I only heard from him about once every two to three years as long as I was keeping the editors happy. It was a wonderful job, and sometimes I wonder why I ever left it. An assistant and I covered five Southern states, and it was our job to understand what the magazines we worked for wanted and needed. We took two or three newspapers from each state and tried to scan them and spot story ideas. I would write some of them, my assistant would write some of them, and we were the eyes and ears of about 38 of those 41 magazines.
I’m a relative newcomer to North Carolina, only having been here about seven years now, but what I learned real fast was how beloved Terry Sanford was as a governor. Was he the inspiration behind the North Carolina Fund?
Yes. It was chartered in 1963 as a nonprofit. Terry Sanford–like his friend Jack Kennedy, one of the main things that made him successful was that he had the ability to spot and recruit and inspire very bright, usually young people. When he became governor he put together a team of thinkers–guys that were able to think outside of the box–some were from academia, some were from the nonprofit world, and he set them to thinking about what North Carolina could do about some of the problems that were bothering Terry, like education and poverty. One of those bright young people in particular was a novelist named John Ehly. John was teaching at the radio, television and motion picture school at UNC and had published a couple of novels when Terry called him to Raleigh. John was interested in problems of poverty, and he and Terry decided they would try to put together some foundation money for an experimental nonprofit that would be free of direct government control, yet would pretty much be under Terry’s control, at least at the start.
So they used no taxpayer money?
They not only used no taxpayer money, but we made grants to the N.C. Department of Instruction from our funds.
So that made you totally autonomous?
It seems to me, at least with the photographic aspect, that the N.C. Fund tipped its hat to the FSA projects of the 1940s. Do you feel the FSA projects were an influence on your work?
I knew of the FSA work. I’m a self-taught photographer, and when I was going to Guilford College for a short time after I got out of the Marine Corps, I literally read every book and magazine that the Greensboro library had on the subject of photography. So when I got to New York, hired as a writer, I knew a lot about photography. I just never owned a decent camera. I got on a magazine that had a Rolleiflex and they sent me out to New Jersey one day to do an assignment, and I said, “Who’s going to do the pictures?” and they said, “Oh, we’ll hire some freelancer to take the pictures,” and I said, “Gimme your camera and two rolls of film. I’ll shoot some pictures and if they’re no good what you’ve lost is about a dollar and a half.” So that was the first time that I had any pictures published.
Was that the first time you had shot with a Rolleiflex? Because that’s not an easy camera to load for beginners.
Yeah, that was the first focusable camera I had used.
I really enjoyed looking at your work up at the American Tobacco Campus in Durham. The prints are beautiful, and I love projects like this one that revisit a subject years later.
Well, thank you. I really had no sense back then–and I still don’t–that I was doing anything that was going to be a gift to the generations. I was just … I really love photography, and one of the first questions I asked when I came up here to interview for the job at the N.C. Fund was, “Am I going to be able to shoot pictures?” I was interviewed by George Esser and he said, “Yes, yes, and yes. One of the things we like about you is that you have that skill.” It was kind of like the first time I bought a Nikon; up until that time, if the pictures were substandard it was because I didn’t have the right equipment. First time I bought a Nikon F1 I no longer had that excuse. If the pictures were lousy it was my fault. Well, it was the same way at the N.C. Fund; I could go anytime I wanted and shoot pictures, anywhere in the state. I could use any amount of film I wanted. And so I was in that same position; I had been given everything that was necessary, and if I didn’t cut it then it was all my fault.
Sounds like a dream job.
Well, I left one dream job where you only see your boss once every three years…
That is a dream job.
But I left one dream job for another. It was a dream. George [Esser] was so good to work with. We produced six films at the fund of which I’m very proud.
Some say LBJ modeled his War on Poverty after Sanford’s N.C. Fund.
In 1964 this cozy little 10-person foundation, the North Carolina Fund, underwent a huge metamorphosis on account of a fellow named Lyndon Johnson deciding that a war on poverty would be his big thing. Congress had plenty of money to appropriate and they started calling the N.C. Fund, insisting that we run demonstration programs and take grant monies for research. Every kind of thing you can think of; we got calls from the labor department, the economic opportunity [people], the education department … people in Washington wanting us to “get some programs started” so Lyndon will be happy and this thing will get off the ground. We were rookies, complete rookies at dealing with problems of rural poverty, but we were the only ones in the game. So this 10-person staff eventually grew to about 350. We had activities all over the state. We had people in buildings all over the state, especially in Durham.
I think it’s shocking to people of my generation–I was born in ’68–to see pictures like the one you have of the billboard for the Johnson County Klan rally and realize that such overt racism was around not even a generation before us.
There was still an enormous amount of racial tension. Just outside of New Bern, down on the river, there was a cabin that belonged to a fellow who was associated with the school system down there, and he volunteered it as a place for the N.C. volunteer contingent for New Bern to stay in. He thought it would be away from the public glare. After all, these were teams mixed in gender and race. Which was a huge no-no in Eastern North Carolina at the time. One Sunday morning a car came along and started pumping bullets into the cabin. My man, the movie shooter from the radio and television school, called me about six o’clock in the morning and says, “They’re shooting at us, they’re shooting at us! What should I do?” I said, “Get your ass under the bed!” (laughing)
Did anybody get hurt?
No, but they got scared. There were multiple incidents like that, but some of them were much more subtle.
You said that all the ’60s stuff was shot on film and all the photos you did in 2005 were shot digitally. How do you feel about the digital revolution as it pertains to documentary work? It seems like everyone is running around with a camera these days.
I think it’s fine. I think everyone should share in the fun. The stuff I see in amateur documentaries has wonderful emotional content, but its technical content leaves something to be desired. But that’s OK. It’s an open game. I think these projects where they give low-income kids cameras and tell ’em to go out and do stories about their lives, I think they are wonderful.
At the opening reception for your exhibit last week, one of the speakers made the point that these days a person living in poverty according to the government’s criteria might have a car, a TV, a stove and a microwave. What do you think is different about poverty in 2005 when compared to what you were documenting in 1965?
I think poverty has more to do with a state of mind rather than just the physical environment these days. Poverty is people I visited in Salisbury, a couple in their early 50s, who were both laid off the same day from Pillowtex. They are both enrolled in Rowan-Cabbarus Community College. Their unemployment money is about to run out, and they’re afraid they’re not going to be able to get their certificates. They own a nice little brick house, and they are facing no income. They don’t have enough money in the bank to get them over this hump to get their certificates so they can find a good job, even if they could find a good job in Rowan County.
Do you think that is a typical example of poverty in 2005?
I think in North Carolina it is.
So one could say that poverty in North Carolina in 2005 is not being able to hold on to what you do have?
That’s very true. Now, not everybody, by a long shot, is making payments on a nice little ranch house on a nice tract of land. A lot of people still live in urban areas in rundown housing. But everybody has a TV and almost everybody has a vehicle of some kind, but the trouble is they are in debt up to their ears. Debt … my heart bleeds for people, middle-class people, semi-wealthy people and poor people who are so in debt up to their ears that if they didn’t get a paycheck for a month they’d literally be losing everything they’ve got. The repo people would be all over ’em. The banks would be taking their homes, the repo people would be taking their cars, the credit card people would be hounding them night and day.
So you think when people say, “But they’re not poor, they’ve got an SUV, a wide-screen, etc.,” that’s a specious argument because a slight change in their situation can wipe it all out, and that’s the difference from that constant, endemic poverty in the past?
Well, I think there’s still a lot of that constant, endemic poverty in North Carolina. In Bertie County you see a lot of the same poverty you saw in the ’60s. But I’m worried about these middle-class people who have been showered with credit cards, working at the same plant, and then the plant closes. Be it furniture, be it a cigarette plant … textiles, of course, have gone down the drain. I’m very worried about those people who are literally two paychecks away from poverty themselves.