If you’re a writer, or you regularly attend author readings, you’ve likely heard at least one anecdote something like this: “My publisher sent me a mock-up of the cover of my book about a river in Oregon. I was shocked to see the cover was a photograph of someplace in Florida!”
Such stories make me realize how fortunate I’ve been to have stunning photographs and designs for my books (see my previous post on book covers). And it’s why I’m especially grateful that Homebound Publications encourages authors to give input on book design and even suggest cover art.
Before I signed the contract for Homebound to publish Hiking Naked, I knew that I wanted a Stehekin artist’s work to be considered. My publisher advised a color photograph. I suspected that Nancy Barnhart likely had plenty to choose from; she’s been photographing people and places in the Stehekin Valley ever since teaching cross-country skiing there in 1973. Almost without exception, when people pick up Hiking Naked, their first comment (after a chuckle about the title) is, “Beautiful cover!” They’re right, and it’s thanks to publisher Leslie Browning’s design work and Nancy’s color photograph of the Goode Ridge Trail.
Although I’ve known Nancy for a couple of decades, I’d never talked with her much about her art. Recently, we had an e-mail conversation (there still are no telephones or cell reception in Stehekin) about what inspires her photography.
“As a preteen,” Nancy says, “I had an Instamatic camera and would take it on family trips to document outings and adventures.” Since then, Nancy’s clicked her way through a Rolliflex and several Nikon models. “I now use a Nikon D800, and I’ve used Mike’s [her husband, Mike Barnhart] medium format RB67 some as well.
Her interests in art and the outdoors go back to her childhood. “I grew up in a suburb of Boston, with a very active, outdoorsy family,” Nancy says. She also remembers always loving art. “We had a drawer in our kitchen filled with crayons, pens, paints and all sorts of utensils for decorating plain or colored paper. We were encouraged to write thank you notes and make homemade cards.”
That cross-country skiing teaching job in Stehekin influenced Nancy’s art—and her life—more than she likely ever imagined. Her boss was Ray Courtney, uncle to Mike Barnhart. After two winters in the valley, Nancy settled in and eventually married Mike (“a master at black-and-white photography”). There they raised two sons as well as Mike’s daughter and son from a previous marriage. They left Stehekin for a few years while their children finished high school, renting us their beautiful home at the end of Company Creek Road during the school year, and returning each summer. Numerous scenes in Hiking Naked, as well as warm memories, center around that house, decorated with many of Nancy and Mike’s framed photographs. In 2005, Nancy and Mike moved back to Stehekin full-time.
Nancy explains that she’s drawn to photography, “…because I can record the precious natural environment that surrounds me and catch moments of beauty to share. As our planet grows increasingly threatened by so many forces, the meaning of a pristine scene expands. It is a lasting memory and a personal impression.” Nancy stays open to unusual compositions in the natural world, and she’s especially drawn to color. “It excites me,” she says. “Knowing when precious light can be found and where it will fall is an absolute pleasure.”
Sometimes, though, it’s the unexpected that thrills her. She describes one autumn photographing a bridge and positioning herself exactly where she wanted to be to frame the image.
“A bear crossed the bridge!”
Was she scared? “No —I wanted to get a photo! I already had my camera on my tripod so I had to lift all of it and shift my body towards the bear. Unfortunately, he/she was faster than me and disappeared into the bushes. It was exciting!”
Nancy enjoys photographing both landscapes and people. “I love capturing candid, emotional photos of people. In my landscape photography, I like finding strong compositions with stunning light and color.” And always, she strives “to keep preserving the beauty of this fragile planet we live on.”
Did I mention Nancy is “a complete fan of color?” No surprise she hopes to do some photography in Cuba. “There is so much color there!”
As vivid as her photographs are, Nancy finds, “Photography is often too flat a medium to me. I love sculpture,” she says, so sometimes she prints photos on fabric so she can bend, wrinkle, sew, insert wire, and manipulate the image in ways she can’t do with a flat paper print. “I can mesh the two creatively and often present a feeling of whimsy and delight with my work.”
Obviously, all those years of camera practice honed Nancy’s skills. Now, she explains, her biggest challenge as a photographer “…is how to make my work stand out and represent ideas and techniques that are unique to me, and how to create images that are fresh and haven’t been created before.”
Nancy Barnhart is a standout in my book.