Watson Brown is spending his retirement taking photos of rural scenes in North Carolina — barns, homesteads and signage — amassing a collection any museum would envy. He’s shown his work at the State Capitol and has been featured on television and in Garden & Gun magazine. Here, he talks about why it’s important to document history before it disappears and what he wishes more people knew about the state.
Q: You were a senior planner for the city of Raleigh for 19 years and retired in 2004. How did you get into photography?
A: Photography was part of my job as a city planner, but I really got into it because I inherited from my aunt the old family farm place in Edgecombe Country back in 1992. My last decade working in Raleigh I was coming down most weekends working on this old family house built in 1854. I started going out with a cheapo digital camera and taking pictures documenting old houses, especially older places that I knew, based on my experience in this part of the state, probably wouldn’t survive.
Q: What made you think they wouldn’t survive?
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A: The families that owned them — the kids inevitably moved away. They go to college and don’t come home because there are no jobs. The economy has been tough in this region for a while. I would see houses for sale several years in a row until the sign fell over and the family just gave up. It was like a whole family history going down the drain.
Q: You started taking photographs in Edgecombe County, about 60 miles east of Wake County, but you expanded to cover more of the state. What was it you wanted to capture?
A: In 2010, I expanded to the way of life of northeastern and eastern North Carolina, trying to do farms and abandoned cars, tobacco barns, old tenant houses — both the black and white history, the history of everyone who lived and worked in this part of the state.
Q: How did you decide where to go and what to photograph?
A: I have a book from every county that’s ever published one. Some date back to the ’70s and ’80s. I just started hitting the roads, not knowing what I’d find. A lot of the houses published in the ’80s and ’90s were already gone. So I sped up my campaign and started doing as much as I could.
Q: What do you wish more people knew about the history of North Carolina?
A: I wish people knew how rich the state is in old historic properties. Most people never take time to drive the back roads. I’ve had people tell me that because of what I’m doing they’ll get off U.S. 70 or U.S. 64 and take back roads to their destination to actually look at places. People are seeing things they never saw before.
Q: Are you ever involved in the preservation of the structures you photograph?
A: I’ve always worked with Preservation North Carolina out of Raleigh. I’ll take pictures and send the photo to the regional representative ... to see if maybe they can get an option for it or try to find people to buy it. The word gets out about these houses. I help with marketing as much as I can.
Q: What do you love most about your work?
A: I love seeing the houses saved. People contact me who are interested in a house, pursue it and eventually it gets restored. That makes me feel good. The other side is that those that do get torn down, at least I’ve got documentation of what it looked like for people who work with historical groups in those counties.
Q: What’s the ultimate goal?
A: To bring more attention to endangered properties, hoping to get them secured, sold and ultimately restored. If this cannot happen, good photographic documentation is essential. I don’t just do straightforward photographic documentation but add my artistic touches with overlays and textures to bring even more attention to the beauty of abandoned places.
Watson Brown — Tar Heel of the Week
Born: Oct. 10, 195, in Edgecombe County
Education: Bachelor’s degree from ECU; master’s degree in city and regional planning from UNC-Chapel Hill
Awards: Order of the Long Leaf Pine (2014)
See his work: Gallery C, 540 N. Blount St. Raleigh
Fun fact: He was the fifth generation of his family to grow up in Edgecombe County.