Monday, December 6, 2010

When the Place Turns Out to Be Unimportant

What Just Happened, 2003

I’ve been photographing the town of Edenton, North Carolina, off and on for eight or nine years. When she was young my mother had relatives there. Antique dealers, it was said, who would gratefully sell you anything out of their home for a price. (She came home with a set of dining room chairs.)

I wasn’t introduced to Edenton formally until friends of ours from Richmond renovated a historic home in Edenton in the late 1990s and invited us to visit. We spent many sunny afternoons talking, laughing, eating and drinking in that old house.

Sadly, that couple is no longer together. But my wife and I were so hooked on Edenton that when retired relatives of hers were looking for a place to settle in the Mid-Atlantic region, Edenton was one of the places we took them to visit. They ended up staying, so we now visit Edenton regularly.

What distinguishes Edenton from a lot of other Southern towns is its exceptional collection of original Colonial and Revolutionary War-era residences. That they are still standing is said to be the result of the ladies of Edenton having made an accommodation of some kind with General Sherman, who in return agreed not to burn down Edenton while cutting his destructive swath through the South during the Civil War.

The Chowan County Courthouse in Edenton, North Carolina is one of the showcase structures of Edenton. Built in 1767, the Courthouse is said to be the nation's most well preserved Colonial courtroom and certainly one of the finest Georgian courthouses in the South.

When I first visited Edenton, carpenters and masons were swarming over the Courthouse, shoring up its foundation, pointing and restoring its external brick walls and refinishing the floors and paneling of the rooms inside. The Courthouse was in regular use until 1999, at which time it was closed. Renovation and restoration of its original floor plan began after several years of fund raising. Today the building is partially restored to its 18th Century configuration.

The usual picture one sees of the Chowan County Courthouse looks like this:

Or this one:

They might be useful pictures if you’ve never seen the Courthouse before. But like so many pictures of many historic places, they don’t have a lot of apparent story to them. It doesn’t take much time for you to see them and be ready to move on.

My first twist on the normal short of the Chowan County Courthouse was this:

It’s still a pretty straightforward shot. But at least playing with the light gave it a little more hint of story.

My favorite photograph of the Chowan County Courthouse turns out to be What Just Happened, above, ironically the least place-specific of all of the pictures I’ve taken there. It was taken during a Christmas tour and shows a woman, actually my wife’s aunt, stepping out the front door of the courthouse. I like to think there’s more story to What Just Happened, as I described here.

I suppose the lesson here, if there is one, is that the picture you bring home because you like it the most is not always the one you set out to take or even one that is recognizable as being from that place.


  1. Edenton, and Dover DE, are like going to Williamsburg, but without the admission.

  2. Interesting--I like them all, but that first really is an atmospheric piece!

    Hope your mom is faring well.