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A time capsule in photographs

Laurie Cameron has displayed his photographs several times throughout the years in Pocahontas County. Cameron is shown here, in 2011, with some of his work that was part of the Art at the Library series at Hillsboro Public Library.

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

It’s fitting that the cover image of Laurie Cameron’s photography book, “Hindsight,” is a photograph of Seneca Rocks – the place that made him become a West Virginian.

“I got out of the car at the foot of Seneca Rocks, the first time I came down here,” he said. “I looked up and thought, ‘Oh boy, I’m home.’ I’ve always loved mountains, but I grew up in New York City. There are no mountains in New York City. I did go to school in Switzerland in the Alps. I loved it. I learned to just love mountains.”

Hindsight is a collection of photographs Cameron took in the Mountain State, but his pursuit of the profession began earlier in his life.

While serving in the Army, Cameron was introduced to photography and the darkroom by a friend, and when he was sent to serve in Germany, he bought his first 35mm Single Lens Reflex camera. He won a couple of post contests with his photographs and was encouraged to continue his artistic endeavors.

When he returned from Germany, Cameron took a 10-week class with famous American photographer Harold Feinstein, who helped ignite the flame of creativity Cameron was afraid didn’t exist.

“Although my mother was a bit of a teacher – I didn’t have any talent for anything to do with the arts, whether it was clay or painting or drawing; anything,” he said. “I just assumed I was without talent. I didn’t like it. I wanted to have some talent. 

“He was a bit of a maverick,” Cameron said of his instructor. “The art school that he was on the faculty of fired him because his teaching philosophy was quite different than your typical art school, but it suited me just fine. More than half of what I got out of the course I got in the first five minutes before he formally started teaching.”

Cameron showed Feinstein samples of his work, and the photographer told his student that, while they were good photos, they were not quite right.

“Harold looked at them, and he said, ‘Laurie, these are good prints. These are very good photographs, but you know, I get the feeling they’re really not Laurie,’” Cameron said. “I didn’t take it the wrong way. I knew right away what he meant. The reason I didn’t know why I was there in the class is because I thought I was pretty good, but there was something about what I was doing that didn’t satisfy me.”

Feinstein told Cameron to ditch the photography magazines he was trying to emulate and find his own vision.

“So I learned then to start to trust my own vision and, immediately, everything changed for me,” he said. “I became a photographer. That’s what Harold did for me.”

Cameron took that fateful trip to Seneca Rocks in the 1960s, and he soon settled in Clover Lick where he and his ex-wife, Marji, raised their daughter, Jennifer.

The family soon became close with their neighbors, and Cameron explored the landscapes and people of Pocahontas County, finding his muse in the traditions carried on from the past.

“When I first got to West Virginia – in addition to seeing Seneca Rocks and realizing how beautiful the landscapes were – as I got to know people, my neighbors, small farmers and different things – I kind of stepped into a time machine when I came down here,” he said. “I never thought of myself as a romantic, but I have since realized that is kind of what I am, and that I see this old stuff that people don’t do anymore and old people, and that kind of thing and that really attracts my eye.”

Among the photographs in Hindsight are some of Cameron’s favorite subjects in Pocahontas County – the Frank Tannery, the Hammons family and the days of hog slaughtering.

A step back in time is how Cameron described his visits to the Frank Tannery where he captured day-to-day tasks of the one time largest producer of shoe sole leather in the world. Above, David Tenney, unidentified man, Bill Lambert and James Louk heft hides from the tanning vat.

The tannery photos came in to existence simply because Cameron is what he calls a door opener.

He needed a 55-gallon drum for gasoline and knew he could buy one from the tannery. When he went to the facility to pick up the drum, his door opener instincts kicked in and the rest is history.

“I’m a curious guy,” he said. “I’m a door opener. I go into a place, and I see a closed door, I go in and knock. If I don’t hear anything, I walk in. I did that. I opened a door and I looked inside. Talk about a time machine. I really thought I’d stepped back into the nineteenth century. The tannery was built right at the turn of the century, and it just blew my mind. I’d never seen anything like it in my life.”

Cameron worked in a factory in Germany and thought he knew what to expect, but he was mesmerized by the work being done at the tannery.

“This was the same factory that they built in 1903,” he said. “They still had the same lighting; the same machinery. So, on my way out, I stopped by the office, and I thought, ‘Well, this is corporate America, they’re going to tell me to get lost.’
“I went in and I said, ‘I would really like to take pictures inside the tannery,’” he continued. “The superintendent [Harry Widney] looked at me and said, ‘Suit yourself.’ I came back with my camera a couple of times and took those pictures. Nobody paid me any mind. I just went in and took pictures of everything I saw.”

There is a set of Cameron’s Frank Tannery photograph series at the Durbin Library.

The Hammons Family is one of the most famous families in Pocahontas County. They were among the first locals Laurie Cameron was introduced to when he settled in Clover Lick. He captured images of the family at their home – enjoying life and playing music. Above, Sherman Hammons, known for his fiddle skills, also played banjo. Here he takes time to tune his banjo before a jam session.

It wasn’t curiosity that led to the photographs of the Hammons family. Instead, it was a musician friend who introduced Cameron to the traditional musicians.

“They were the first people I knew down here,” he said. “A friend of mine was a musician, and I was hanging out with him, and he took me over there one day.”

Among the photographs Cameron took at the Hammons homestead is a photo of Maggie Hammons holding Cameron’s infant daughter.
A selection of the Hammons family photographs are on display at the Pocahontas County Opera House.

When he was taking the photographs around Pocahontas County, Cameron was cognizant of the fact that he was not only capturing art, but he was also recording history – offering a fond look back.

A long-held Appalachian tradition that fascinated Cameron was the old-fashioned hog slaughter. He photographed a group of farmers – Harvey Buzzard, Brooks Barnett, Frank Mann, Evan Grimes and Frank Mann, Jr. during the process.

“There’s one other group that I consider to be like those and that’s the hog slaughter because nobody does that anymore,” he said. “Another piece of the time machine. Those are the three important groups that I did. Then there’s the odd portrait here and there, and landscapes.”

Hindsight – a time capsule of the 1960s through 1980s – is the second photography book Cameron has self-published.

He published a book of his photographs that were taken at the Wissahickon section of Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. One thousand copies of Wissahickon Dreams were sold in a year.

“I always wanted to do a book,” he said. “I didn’t do the book until 2004; it’s of a park I lived near in Philadelphia. I did a book all myself. I made it very simple. I just bought a layout program and learned enough of it to get by and hired one of those outfits that makes the book for you.”

Cameron was anxious to publish another book and, with the help of fellow Hillsboro resident Susan Chappell, who did the layout, and several friends who helped narrow down the content, Cameron published 75 copies of Hindsight.

“I just decided I wanted to do this book in the worst way, and I was going to do it,” he said. “Then I’m going to give it away to family, friends and a few select others. I was lucky to get Susan Chappell to agree to be the book designer. Without Susan, I wouldn’t have gotten it done.”

Armed with six three-ring binders full of proofs, Cameron and friends picked the best of the best – a task most would be daunted by, but not Cameron.

“That was easy,” he said. “I’m fairly good. I got them out, put them in a pile and started going through the pile. I took out the ones that I really liked and then I got other friends and Susan to pick out ones they liked. The book kind of made itself as far as selection went.”

The family, friends and acquaintances who received the gift of Hindsight, have a rare gift indeed.

The cover of Laurie Cameron’s photography book “Hindsight” is a photo he took at Seneca Rocks – the site that made him realize West Virginia was meant to be his home. Photos courtesy of Laurie Cameron

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