New exhibition in King-Shivell Gallery by local artist Sam Brown captures Appalachian life with homemade camera

Banner Elk native Sam Brown captures the essence of Appalachia through portraiture with his latest photography collection “Portraits of the Modern Appalachian: Photographs from a Homemade Box Camera.” The collection opens at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 25 in the King-Shivell Gallery, and will be on display through March.  

With a homemade camera he constructed out of reclaimed wood and antique camera parts during the coronavirus lockdown, Brown has taken local history and pop culture representation of Appalachia into his own hands by capturing this series of portraits. 

“I just like to give good documentation of the people in Appalachia at this time,” Brown said. “This specific camera was designed to be disarming and make the process of sitting in front of the camera more comfortable, which lends itself to capturing people who are not as inclined to technology and things like that.” 

Brown’s design was modeled after the Afghan box camera, and he affectionately calls his version the Appalachian box camera. The camera makes use of a lens from the early 1900s and the photographs are printed on orthochromatic paper which block out red light, only absorbing blue and green. This creates a black-and-white final product.  

These techniques give the finished photographs an “old-timey” feel, which Brown says adds a layer of authenticity to his overall goal with the project. 

“I am unsatisfied with the way that Appalachians are portrayed in popular culture, but I also have a respect for the fact that a place like this is not as modern as somewhere like New York City for instance,” Brown said. 

While the exhibit will appeal to anyone who has ties to Banner Elk or the general Appalachian region, Assistant Professor of Communication Arts and Design Michael Iauch believes that students in the program can learn a lot through Brown’s work. 

“The photographs themselves are really beautiful, but his concern with craft, his attention to detail, and his knowledge of the history of photography is something that can often get overlooked when educating young students,” Iauch said.  

Brown agrees that his approach to photography is valuable in an educational setting, as it takes a historical look at the art form. According to Brown, shooting with a box camera is an easy and inexpensive way to get into photography and become closer to the origins of the medium.  

“This specific type of photography is important to introduce to students and young people,” Brown said. “I want to remind people where the root of photography comes from and how simple it can really be. The reason I wanted to get this into Lees-McRae is to show people the breadth of what photography can be.”  

Brown’s own Appalachian upbringing also played a part in his desire to display his work at Lees-McRae.  

“Sam actually grew up in Banner Elk, and he made all of his own frames out of wood from Banner Elk Elementary School,” Iauch said. “There’s a consideration for reclaiming old materials in his work, and his concern with Appalachian culture is something that should appeal to anyone who is a part of the Lees-McRae community.” 

Brown hopes that “Portraits of the Modern Appalachian: Photographs from a Homemade Box Camera” can provide a refreshing representation of Appalachian life and serve as a historical marker for the people in the region.  

“I think it’s important to cement our place in the history of Banner Elk,” Brown said. “There's lots of digital evidence that we were here, but I think we should all strive to leave our mark in a physical, environmentally friendly way as well.” 

King-Shivell Gallery, in the Cannon Student Center, is open to the public and has free admission for all students, faculty, and staff as well as members of the community. All are welcome and encouraged to visit the gallery and enjoy Brown’s work through March 2022. 

By Maya JarrellJanuary 24, 2022