"Our Living Past," a photo exhibit at NC State's Gregg Museum of Art & Design, is a show seemingly from another era.
All of the pictures on display have been taken since 2013, and the subject matter is under-appreciated blues musicians — hotshot guitarist Cool John Ferguson, venerable Durham bluesman John Dee Holeman and the late Winston-Salem crooner Luther "Captain Luke" Mayer among them.
But the monochromatic images look like they could be a century old. That's because Tim Duffy, president of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, made the portraits with the collodion wet plate process, a photographic technique that dates back to the Civil War.
"There were actually no pictures that look like this from the 1890s," Duffy said. "I'm just reaching back to use an old technique. Photographing African-Americans with as much flash as I use makes for really dramatic pictures."
About 20 of the photos will be on display for the next six months. An opening reception is May 17 with the Glorifying Vines Sisters, a group from Farmville who has benefited from the Music Maker foundation, performing.
Duffy has been a photographer for most of his adult life, but his main occupation since the late 1990s has been running Music Maker. The non-profit organization based in Hillsborough supports older roots musicians with everything from grants to pay medical expenses to recording and show-booking services.
Over the years, Duffy's photographs have become visually synonymous with Music Maker, gracing album covers, posters and websites. He has published a number of books of photographs and has another coming out next year "Blue Muse: Timothy Duffy's Southern Photographs," from University of North Carolina Press, with an essay by historian William R. Ferris.
Most of the people portrayed in "Our Living Past" — on display through Nov. 25 — are artists that Duffy has worked with through Music Maker, including Algia Mae Hinton, the guitarist/buck-dancer who died in February at age 88.
Another great subject is Sharon Jones, the irrepressible funk/soul fireball and leader of the Dap-Kings who died from cancer in 2016. After meeting Jones at a show in Raleigh, where she opened for Derek Trucks, Duffy did a photo session that captured Jones in an uncharacteristically vulnerable-looking moment.
"What you usually see of her is pictures where she's wearing something bright and shiny and dancing around," Duffy said. "Right before I took that picture, she said, 'This is the look that says I want this cancer out of my body.' She died not long after that."
Getting these portraits involves a lot of work and time, as much as five hours to get just a few pictures. Duffy uses a large old-style camera on a big tripod where he's shooting from under a hood. While the portraits' subjects seem larger than life, the photos are medium-sized, the technology hindering them from being enlarged.
Even though most of his subjects are relatively unknown to the wider mainstream, Duffy thinks their legacy is worth preserving.
"What we actually know about blues and jazz is the tip of the iceberg compared to what's been lost," Duffy said. "Not many of these characters are famous, but that does not mean they're any less important than the ones you've heard of. America's best export has always been our music, invented by people whose identities were stripped as they came off the ship. Their great grandsons and granddaughters are keeping the language alive."
What: "Our Living Past: Photographs by Timothy Duffy"
When: On Display through Nov. 25. Opening reception 6-8 p.m. May 17 with artist talk and performance by Glorifying Vines Sisters.
Where: NC State's Gregg Museum of Art & Design, 1903 Hillsborough St., Raleigh
Info: 919-515-3503 or gregg.arts.ncsu.edu