Isabelle Baldwin is a student in Photography and Sustainability at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York. She is originally from Waynesville, North Carolina, a small town surrounded by the Great Smoky Mountains. After graduation, she will be relocating to Washington, DC where she plans to commute to Virginia and the surrounding southern areas in continuation of her series, Sleepy Time Down South.
How did you get to photography?
I didn’t have an immediate fondness for it, to be quite honest. When I was young, my brother was really interested in photography. In fact, both of my siblings were artistically inclined, and I felt like the odd one out. I distinctly remember walking the streets of Europe with my family and feeling a sense of confusion when my Mom and brother would stop to take photographs of the colorful doors and cathedrals.
When I was accepted to art school, I was very overwhelmed by how talented and technically versed my peers were. I had never taken a photography class and I had certainly never seen a darkroom. Over the corresponding years, I became increasingly more interested in the history of photography and the relationship between a tool and an artist; I would rent out a new piece of equipment each week to see how it felt to hold and the difference in quality.
In a sense, I fell in love with photography in a way that is inherently backward. At 16, I was mainly using my phone as a vehicle to create images. At 17, I began photographing friends and family with my first digital camera, and by 19, I felt that I had mastered the silver gelatin print. At 22, I fall in and out of love with my own images each day and I am slowly learning to value my natural sensibility to the world.
Introduce us to Sleepy Time Down South.
This body of work is an homage to the areas in the American South which have influenced me both as a child and in the transitional years of my adult life. I highlight the people and places that exist quietly, on the outskirts of society; the people that make my home, home. The mountains were always my first subject, so it seemed instinctive to return to them.
Where does the title come from?
The title for this project is inspired by the 1930’s ballad “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” by Louis Armstrong. Originally written to detail the Great Migration in America which concerned African Americans moving from the south to northern cities, the message still reverberates a sense of truth in the context of the contemporary South.
When I first heard this song, it was through the anguished voice of Billie Holiday on a late night drive through Savannah, Georgia in the sweltering humidity of June. Over the past year that I have been photographing, this ballad has become the anchor of my sentimental attachment to the south, namely the lyrics:
Dear old southland with his dreamy songs,
Takes me back to where I belong,
How I’d love to be in my mammy’s arms,
When it’s sleepy time down south.
Your photographs recall childhood memories and familiar landscapes, how do you hope viewers react to the series?
The intention behind producing my work has always come from a distinctly selfish place, a place of yearning to be close to my home once more and to feel that I can somehow bring justice to the beautiful landscape of my youth. If there is one thing I know from growing up in the south, it is that mountain folk wear their pride and hearts on their sleeve, unlike many places I have experienced before.
“My main hope is that whoever sees [my photographs] can establish a visual relationship between themselves and their own memories”.
For me, this pride has often accompanied a sense of guilt for the history of this geographical region and the stereotypes that are still deeply rooted in American culture today. When I put my photographs out into the world, my main hope is that whoever sees them can establish a visual relationship between themselves and their own memories. At the end of the day, a reaction of, “this reminds me of home” is all that I could ask for.
What have been the main influences on your photography?
Growing up, the biggest photographic influence in my life was Ansel Adams. Although his work is quite universal to admire, I always felt that I could melt into his landscapes in a way that I have yet to achieve. As my own style has shifted, I have found myself looking at more independent artists that are closer to my age and subject matter. I carry around a copy of Susan Worsham’s “Crabapple Grave” and Sally Mann’s biography, “Hold Still” when I’m feeling lost in my own work. I am also inspired by Rachel Boillot and Peyton Fulford, whom I would say are crusades of humanizing Southerners through photography. Outside of the realm of visual mediums, I am generally inspired by those closest to me. I have been lucky enough to surround myself with artists and entrepreneurs that are always willing to lend me encouragement when I am most in need.
Enjoy Isabelle’s pictures on her website.