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A Conversation with Jack Jeffers: What are the rules that you follow and what are the rules that you break?


End of an Era: The Photography of Jack Jeffers was the first exhibition that truly captivated me as a new employee of the Virginia Historical Society. It was unseasonably warm in March 2012, and I happened upon the Jeffers exhibition on my first tour. The imagery of snowy hills, sheep grazing, and log cabins in the quiet woods was just what I needed to see in such busy, noisy times. Jeffers spent forty years of his life photographing the vanishing landscapes and people of Appalachia. Into the summer I began giving free after hours tours of the show, and later corresponded with Mr. Jeffers about his work. I asked him, “What are the rules that you follow in making and printing photographs, and what, if any, are the rules that you break?” A conversation began, and I would like to share his thoughts with you in celebration of the second installment of the End of an Era exhibition, which is currently on display at the VHS.

Rules are fine when artists are in a classroom setting, because the instructor is passing on proven and constructive information, which the student then processes in his or her own way. The trick is to apply this information under actual field conditions. And this is where I change the word “rules” to guidelines. For many up-and-coming artists, this transition comes quickly, while with others, it comes more slowly or never at all. The “nevers” often follow the rules and style of the teacher to the letter, and as a result, they never branch out and develop a “style” of their own.

 Being able to pre-visualize and anticipate a landscape or make a powerful character study is the key to mastering the fine art of photography.

 When I used to print an original silver image, my mind worked in exactly the same manner as it did while making the negative. I knew exactly what I was striving for as the end result. This not only involves the type of paper I used but also the use of various toning and printing techniques as well. There is no better way to describe this entire sequence of events than to use the term “gut feeling.” If the concept feels right, then go for it. Perfection comes with experience and practice.

 This photograph of the Rider and Mule illustrates how this artist’s mind functioned on a given occasion. 

“Rider and Mule” by Jack Jeffers, 2012

 I spotted a group of three riders preparing themselves and their mules for a day of back country trail riding. The series of events began with the anticipation that something of interest was about to happen. I recognized a potential concept and was preparing myself mentally for the decisive moment. I quickly grabbed my camera. I didn’t have much time, but I was able to make two exposures as the first rider passed by. I nailed it right on the money. What added to this concept was the fact that the man raised his hand as a friendly gesture, and I captured it. Also, the main subject, being the man and the mule, are presented a bit off center and running from left to right. This represents one important guideline; the main subject is not placed dead center on the image.

 In processing the image, I elected to present the photograph in black and white with an added touch of sepia. For me personally, it presented a more powerful image than color.

 I never think in terms of breaking rules. Instead, I look at something interesting, and if it looks or feels right, I make the exposure and go from there. Ninety-five percent of the time my gut was right on target.

Lizzie Oglesby is the Member and Visitor Services Officer at the Virginia Historical Society. 

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