Past Presence: An Interview With Nashville-Based Photographer Caroline Allison

Born in Atlanta and educated at The Art Institute of Chicago, Nashville-based photographer Caroline Allison unveils an image-scape of uncanny absence and austere beauty. A magnolia sprawls across an empty estate like a tree from “Pan’s Labyrinth”; a quilted bed is perfectly made, its room an eerie, quiet green. What are we actually looking at? Or, more importantly, where and when? These are the types of questions Allison’s photographs slowly pull from the neurons. With a somber precision that reads more exploratory than expressive, her body of work demands heightened attention from viewers that has become increasingly rare.

We sat down with the artist to discuss her process and creativity.

You’re from Georgia, but have lived in Chicago and in New York. What brought you to eventually settle in Nashville?
I grew up in Atlanta and had lots of friends who went to school in Nashville. When I was going to grad school in Chicago, I was often waylaid in Nashville on the way home. With grad school, I spent twelve years between Chicago and New York—I was just ready for a change at the end of my time in New York, wanting a place that I could sink some roots in. Atlanta had grown big in so many ways that I didn’t feel as comfortable there anymore. But Nashville felt like moving home. It used to be that you sort of knew everybody, and now there are so many facets to the Nashville artistic community. I just felt more grounded here, with the people and place.

Caroline_Allison credit Heidi Ross

Caroline Allison, by Heidi Ross

One of your photography projects, “A Common Place,” features haunted interiors. It reminded me a bit of German photographer Candida Höfer—something about how still, yet open the image seems. You seem invested in matters of American history.
“A Common Place” started around 2009 when I moved back to Tennessee, and it’s still work that I’m making to this day. Most of my photographs have a very specific historic marker to them. Sometimes the history is “big history,” and other times it’s more pop cultural.

All of my projects begin as a way of investigating history—but I don’t have a tight criteria for the type of history represented. My work also reflects a long digestion of other photographers—those you might expect, like Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, but with a healthy sprinkling of German photographers, like Höfer. When I was in graduate school, the whole Dusseldorf School of Photography was really hot: Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff. My photographs are shot with a 4 x 5 camera, so, like a lot of the German photographers, the process of setting up and making the image is all very slow. There’s a real element of labor to it.

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Hank Williams’ Boyhood Home, Georgiana, Alabama Archival pigment print by Caroline Allison

And also an initial sense of mystery—like, “Where are we?”
Yes, like with the smokestack image—shot through a suburban backyard, with a pool in the foreground—is in Kingston, Tennessee, the site of the largest coal ash spill that has ever happened in our country. The spill happened in 2009 on the other side that I photographed, and wiped out acres and acres of land. The gold piano photograph was part of Conway Twitty’s former “Twitty City” outside Nashville. Conway Twitty was all over country radio for years and built a fantastic compound—with one mansion for himself, and one for his mother. His house was bought by the Trinity Broadcasting Network and is now part of their studio. Another image I took was from Hank Williams’ boyhood home that is now a small-town museum. Spaces like that that have a cyclical life.

I gravitate to places like that. Sometimes it’s a matter of going to a place, a city or a town on the map that sounds like it has potential and then seeing in person what it has to offer up. Like, I went to a place called “Defeated, Tennessee,” and in all actuality there was nothing there worth shooting [laughs]. But when I drove up the road, there was another town called “Difficult,” where there was something. So, there’s an element of serendipity to my process.

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Newmarket Creek, South Carolina Archival pigment print by Caroline Allison

There’s an intellectual aspect of your work that intrigues me. Your series “Underground Again” moves from references to runaway slaves to surviving creeks to September 11th. Have you been influenced by any schools of thought or philosophy?
I’m a huge Walker Percy reader—and he was a prolific Southern novelist and also a fan of Kierkegaard. He even converted to Catholicism because it more philosophically aligned with how he saw the world. His novel “The Moviegoer,” from 1960, is probably the one that most profoundly influenced me. It suggests the idea of a place becoming more authentic for its inhabitants once it is mediated—like, if it is used in a set for a film, it’s imbued with another aura that was not there otherwise. A lot of those ideas has influenced the way I see things.

How does your process for commercial and magazine work differ from your artistic projects? 
When I lived in Chicago or New York, I never did commercial or editorial work. But when I moved to Nashville, it was an outgrowth of shooting interiors for an art project. Commercial photography is a much tighter box to work within, but I like finding the creativity in that smaller framework. And it’s also more of a collaboration—yes, it’s what I see, but then I have to collaborate with the client’s vision as well. The more I do that kind of work, the more it aligns with what I’m doing artistically. The process is so different, though—I’m shooting a thousand images for commercial, instead of maybe two for my artwork.

How has your Nashville grounding affected your perspective and process of making?
That’s a good question. I’m trying to think of the best answer to skin that cat. When I moved here in 2007, so much of my creative process was a bit schizophrenic. Even in Chicago, the images that resonated most with people was work that I had shot in Kentucky or Tennessee. When I moved to New York, I still had all these productive road trips down south. I hate to say there was a “language” I understood, because I don’t want to romanticize being in the South, but I felt like I could access places more easily here than I did in other places. There was a real sense of rootedness that came with moving here, especially with art-making.

And now, it’s fun seeing how the Nashville landscape has grown bigger. The maker movement has always been really strong here, but there’s a dynamism now that was not around ten years ago. I don’t know what the catalyst was—around 2009 it really started to come together, but because of so many things that were put in place before then.

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Angel Oak Archival pigment print by Caroline Allison

What are you most excited about right now?
I’m laughing, because I’ve been staring down this summer and wondering how I’m going get on the road and take some photos with a three-year-old and five-year-old. In my last body of work, “Underground Again,” there’s an offshoot that wasn’t apparent ’til the show went up, so there’s now a laundry list of places I know I want to visit and photograph. I hate to put them all out there, which almost borders on superstition—like I won’t be able to do what I want to do if I go out and announce them. Right now everything is possible, and nothing is impossible. The challenge is figuring out how to get where I need to go.

Photography by Caroline Allison unless otherwise noted.

Cover image:
Slickaway Road, Kentucky
Archival pigment print

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