Book: The American Tobacco Factory

Transition: The American Tobacco Factory. 2008. Stony Hill Press, Chapel Hill, NC. 46 Black and White Plates, 64 pages. Soft Cover is 10x8 inches, and Hard Cover is 11x14 inches.

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Excerpt From Book Introduction

The American Tobacco Factory Portfolio

When I saw an article in the local paper late in 1999 on the pending sale and renovation of the American Tobacco Factory (ATF), located in downtown Durham NC, I wondered if the buildings and machinery would be interesting photographic subjects. I was also motivated by thoughts of the many other abandoned factories that I grew up with as a child in a decaying New Jersey inner city that were torn down under the guise of urban renewal leaving vacant garbage strewn lots. For over 150 years Durham has been identified with the tobacco industry, first with Bull Durham tobacco and then the Duke American Tobacco Factory. The ATF moved to a new site in the mid 1980’s, and the old site was shut down and the buildings left to decay. The power and wealth of the Duke family business at the time is still evident in the craftsmanship of the buildings, the unique brickwork and architectural details, and the few pieces of remaining machinery.

With three phone calls I had obtained a key to the factory site, and with the generosity of the developer/owner continued to have access! My initial pictures were attempts to capture something of the decay and isolated objects. However, after developing and printing the first few images I felt compelled to return and with each visit, at different times of the day and different seasons, additional images revealed themselves. As I wandered among the buildings feelings of emptiness and loneliness vied with the knowledge that these buildings had supported generations of families, and yet had turned out a product that was ultimately toxic to its users. Indeed, the buildings empty of people still felt inhabited and the aroma of tobacco emanated from the wood floors – frozen in time. I wandered the buildings and grounds alone, but could feel – and at times see – the people who worked and toiled in the buildings; sorting the tobacco leaf, putting cigarettes into the packaging machines, packing and loading pallets of cigarettes, and maintaining the three massive furnaces that provided heat and electricity.

Inanimate objects coalesced with inorganic and organic growth. The cold harsh lighting I found in the near windowless Strickland and Fowler buildings contrasted with the warm glowing light coming through windows in the Bull building on a late winter day. Inexplicably the huge boilers of the Lucky Strike Powerhouse seemed alive, the light from an open doorway highlighting the coal chutes and rocker arms. It was surprising to find a lone office chair sitting among debris and dirt facing an open doorway bathed in the light of the setting sun, as though anticipating the return of people to their work. Winter light streamed through south facing windows in the Bull building and across the floor highlighting two doors. The incredible brickwork of Hill Building formed a repetitive pattern and cast shadows on a partially collapsed roof, contrasting with the poured concrete form of the distant, and more modern, NC Mutual building. Plant life existed among, and in some cases aided, the decay of the buildings. Trees grew out of gutters and up through three stories of the Washington building where the ceiling had collapsed to the basement. Epiphytic ferns grew out of cracks in mortar and among pipes, while vines crept under the doorway of the Denatured Alcohol and Specialty Rum Storeroom in Hill building. I was amazed to find a circular stair in Noell building that led to an upper story that had collapsed, and spent 45 minutes making a low-light exposure. The Lucky Strike smokestack and water tower, fixtures of the Durham skyline, towered over the 24 acres of buildings and I found myself photographing them several times from different vantage points.

My work on this personal project transitioned in 2002 when the renovation, or reformation, of the Factory began. Workers moved in to remove asbestos, pigeon droppings, and lead paint. More workers streamed in and repaired mortar and brick, replaced girders, and fixed roofs. The reformation changed the history of this site, while revealing the beauty of the buildings and architecture. In some instances I was able to capture this reformation. People now make an appearance in my photographs, in some cases as ghostly forms due to the long exposures, or (as in Durham Skyline) as a tiny figure in a doorway on a roof.

The buildings, restored and again made habitable, now offer offices, meeting rooms, grand halls, restaurants, art galleries and shops for a new generation of workers. My photography captured the transition of the buildings as their architectural details were restored, and they became once again structurally sound. So too my future photography will capture the post-reformation of buildings and grounds.

I hope that my black and white photographs will engage the viewer emotionally. I trust that the viewer will become aware of the generations of factory workers who earned a livelihood in these landmark buildings.