On a warm spring day in 2015, documentary photographer Andrew Moore and friend Lucy Hicks were driving through dirt-poor Wilcox County in southwest Alabama. They were in search of destinations to photograph for Moore’s upcoming book on the region, “Blue Alabama.”
“We were looking for something that spoke to us, something that stood out from the crowd,” remembers Moore. “Lucy, who lives in Alabama, had told me about this old house that had always intrigued her, so we tracked it down. The minute I saw it, I fell in love with it. It was a wonderfully decrepit farmhouse built around 1850. Its exterior of old pine boards had aged to this deep brown-black color.
“It was dark, a little foreboding and the antithesis of the white Southern plantation houses you see throughout Alabama. I sensed there was a story there waiting to be told.”
The two got out of the car and walked to the front yard, where Lucy called out gently, “Yoo-hoo! Is anyone home?”
“We were both a little hesitant,” says Moore. “It’s not always a great idea to approach someone out of the blue like this. It can be a little tricky. You never know.”
After a minute or two, Moore was delighted to see an elderly but self-assured looking woman climbing down the home’s back stairway to greet them. He noticed she had a pistol tucked into her housedress.
“There was this instant connection, a real bond. I realized she was not like anyone I had ever met before and obviously she sensed something welcoming about me. It was remarkable.”Andrew Moore
She looked Moore straight in the eyes and said in her deep Alabama accent, “Before I talk to strangers, I have to know something.” She paused for a beat and then asked, “Do you know the Lord?”
“Yes, ma’am,” answered Moore. “I do.”
“It was an unforgettable moment,” remembers Moore. “There was this instant connection, a real bond. I realized she was not like anyone I had ever met before and obviously she sensed something welcoming about me. It was remarkable.”
Moore, a seen-it-all, done-it-all, globe-trotting photographer from New York City and the 83-year-old widow Pearlie, a strict no-smoking, no-drinking, no-swearing Southern Methodist, made an unlikely pair. But, as Moore explains, “We clicked.”
Indeed, Moore made a photo of Pearlie that afternoon that would eventually grace his book. The image was of Pearlie playing with her chickens, or, as she called them, “my pets.” Says Moore, “The unadulterated joy in her face blew me away. I am so glad I could capture that.”
The two became close friends and Moore even brought his family to Wilcox County to meet her. He made several more images of her and her home over the next four years as he kept returning to photograph Alabama for his book. She died earlier this year.
After studying photography at Princeton from 1975 to 1979 under the guiding hand of photographer Emmet Gowin, Moore worked with commercial photographers, produced a pre-Photoshop series of montages, and made ends meet by taking various commercial assignments. Eventually he began traveling internationally and worked on large-format photography projects in countries as diverse as Cuba, Russia, Bosnia, and Vietnam as well as the United States.
He’s exhibited his prints in galleries around the world, and they’ve been collected by more than 50 museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the National Gallery of Art. In addition to his 2019 book on Alabama, he’s published seven volumes representing his work in Cuba, Russia, Detroit, and the American Midwest. His photos have also appeared in publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, and National Geographic.
“I’ve been lucky,” says the 65-year-old Moore as he answers questions in his expansive 3,000-square-foot studio in Kingston, New York, across the Hudson River from his home in Rhinebeck, New York. “Since the late 1990s I’ve largely been able to finance my travels and book work by selling limited edition prints in galleries. I was an overnight success after 20 years of work! I know how much of a struggle it can be for photographers. People can have a brilliant project and then find it’s hard to come back and follow that with a second success. So, I count my blessings.”
While Moore’s relationship with Pearlie is both touching and interesting, it’s also indicative of how he works. It illustrates how he finds many of the people and places that have made his award-winning work so successful.
It’s not that he dislikes Google, but it’s not his go-to research method. “I prefer the kind of serendipitous, person-to-person encounters that force me to get out into the world,” says Moore. “I’m more of a knock-on-the-door and a leave-a-note-in-the-mailbox kind of researcher. I try to go to places you don’t normally get to see and then work there to build relationships with both the people I meet and the places I discover. The first time you go to a foreign place you’ll feel like a tourist. But the more times you return, you begin to get deeper as you peel back the layers.”
Sometimes, admits Moore, his style of research doesn’t work. “I’d done a magazine assignment in China and thought I had enough sense of the place to wing it on another trip. In 2007 I booked a month-long trip and was raring to go. But when I got to northeast China near the border with North Korea, I quickly realized that I had no idea what I was doing.”
After a month he returned home, having shot 140 sheets of color negative film with his 8x10 Ebony view camera. “That’s a lot for me,” says Moore. “But out of all these there was just one picture I liked. And it was blurry because the film had popped when it was so cold. I never showed or printed any of the images—none of them. The trip was a complete disaster.”
Moore’s book projects can easily take several years to complete. He’ll return to a place as often as it takes to get what he needs and typically makes hundreds of pages of notes as he scouts for photo opportunities. “I’m kind of like a private investigator—or a spy—in that I run down a lot of dead ends when I work on a new project. As a photographer, my goal is to make intricate, complex scenes that viewers feel they can step into and lose themselves. I search for the deep history of a place. Happily, to do that I have the luxury of time.”
Completing his 2015 book on the Midwest, “Dirt Meridian” (named for the 100th meridian that bisects the United States almost exactly in half), required numerous trips over 10 years. “One reason I take so long is that I make a lot of bad pictures before I make a few good ones,” says Moore with a wry smile. “I am pretty demanding. I want a photograph that works on every level. The light, the color, the narrative detail—all cylinders have to be firing before I’m satisfied with an image.”
“The first thing I look for in a picture is how alive the space is,” says Moore. He points to a picture of pronghorn antelope in Wyoming from “Dirt Meridian.” “That scene, with the horizon that seems to recede forever, could be an endless space. But it is punctuated by the movement of the antelope that is so close up. That’s where and how this silent space becomes incredibly activated and alive.”
Using medium- and large-format cameras means that Moore invariably puts a lot of time and thought into his images. “I’ve often compared my slow photography to slow food in that both take a long time to prepare.” He laughs and adds, “I am always being autocorrected by Google when I write about how I ‘make’ a picture. The program invariably changes it to ‘take.’ I don’t take pictures; I make them.”
After Moore amasses, say, 150 images he’s happy with, he’ll show them to a book designer, an editor, or an art director. “It’s important to get another eye, someone to help edit to create pictures that flow and also tell a story,” he explains. “This usually occurs when I am two-thirds or three-quarters into a project. That’s the time I can see what’s missing, where the holes are. I may find I am missing a streetscape or a small town or a small back road and I can go back to shoot them. I use the design process to inform my shooting.”
He explains that after putting together a selection of images for “Blue Alabama” he discovered that while he had plenty of interiors, house exteriors, and portraits, he needed more landscapes, street views, and town images. “I lacked variety. Luckily, I hooked up with a [drone] pilot and was able to capture images from the air that I needed,” says Moore.
“Sometimes,” says Moore, “but not often, the photography gods smile down on you.” During the two years he visited Detroit to complete his book on the town’s architectural ruins, “Detroit Disassembled,” he regularly asked for permission to see Henry Ford’s long-abandoned office in the crumbling Highland Park Ford Plant. “The building’s owner refused us every time we asked,” says Moore. But the determined photographer never gave up.
“On one visit in 2009, when the owner wasn’t there, we asked again, and his secretary said, ‘OK, I’ve got the keys right here. The maintenance man will take you in.’ We were over the moon. No one had seen Henry Ford’s office in close to 50 years.”
Moore and his team followed the maintenance man as they climbed up concrete stairways to the building’s top floor where the executive offices were located. “We got to the top floor, located Ford’s corner office, opened the door and all of us shouted ‘Wow!’ at the same time,” he remembers. The office of the founder of the Ford Motor Co. was frozen in time. The wood paneled walls had lost their luster, mold was everywhere, and a lush carpet of brilliant, thick green moss covered the floor.
“I shouted ‘Don’t anyone walk on it!’ says Moore. He spent quite a bit of time making images of the office, using several setups with different lenses. “I wasn’t absolutely certain what was the best picture until I saw all the negatives together on the lightbox,” he says. His eventual pick, “Model T Headquarters,” was named picture of the year by Time magazine and was acquired by several museums. “It was a miracle,” says Moore. “It was one of those random, magic moments when everything comes together.”
Robert Kiener is a writer in Vermont.