Some tribes of American natives believed that there is a soul in trees, rocks, mountains and bodies of water. Some people believe that inanimate objects bear witness to things that happened in or nearby them; that old barns, abandoned houses and deserted store buildings are still home to the soul of the structures, that they hold close the collective memories of the people who have passed through them over the years.
For Mt. Hope resident Conley Bush, capturing the ‘soul’ of an abandoned barn or a lonely homeplace has become a passion.
He began taking photographs with his cell phone when he was under a great deal of stress. “I found that it’s very therapeutic,” said Bush. “What started out as a hobby has become my passion.”
He seems to be most attracted to old barns and places where families once lived, loved and sometimes lost their lives.
In traveling to visit friends and family in Tennessee and Kentucky, and on sideroads in Lawrence County, or just about anywhere his journeys take him, Conley often notices subjects that wind up in his stockpile of precious photographs or on a Facebook page that he created for his photos and for other like-minded hobby photographers to post and share their work. “If it’s an abandoned building, especially a really old and well-cared for one, I know to stop and take pictures because I might not ever see it again,” he laughs.
Conley isn’t one bit reluctant to share his techniques for capturing such haunting images. “I just use my phone, but I do subscribe to a free online app for editing,” he noted. He advises that people who want to take great pictures with their cell phones do the following: “Make sure to keep your camera set on ‘landscape,” he cautions. “That way you can get everything in the picture, then later you can edit, using the free app, “Photo Editor.”
Conley has never entered a contest, or written a book, but he certainly has enough material for those endeavors. Basically, he just loves capturing the essence of bygone eras, a time when life was a bit slower, if not easier.
His parents, Henry Lee and Mary Bush, and his grandparents have lived in Mt. Hope for four generations. He is as tied to this land by their blood, sweat and tears as others are by crops, money and farmlife. Owning land was a real sign of prosperity back in their day. His grandparents were sharecroppers who worked hard to attain what was impossible for their own parents. Their tenacity and determination has made it possible for their descendents to have a special bond with their neighbors and the people who grew up around them. Their children and grandchildren have kept their memories alive by staying close to friends, family and according to Conley, their former classmates from Mt. Hope High School, where he graduated in 1987. His sisters, Fran Bush, Allison Billings and Jackie Clark, along with several nieces and nephews, are an inspiration to Conley, and have encouraged him to use his talent for bringing these old relics of lost generations to life for others to see before time, or man, eventually brings them down and they are forgotten forever.
“I’ve been told that these structures are sad, that it’s a shame that they’ve been allowed to deteriorate like this,” said Conley. “But I tell them, no, these buildings are beautiful in their own way.”
Other photographers and friends on Facebook have also encouraged and mentored Conley, praising his eye for the unusual beauty that others go by without a passing glance. His pastor, David Downs, and his church family at Huntsville Vineyard Church have also lifted him up by giving him constant positive feedback about his work, and guided him to places he might otherwise have not seen and photographed.
Barns are disappearing at an alarming rate. Progress has taken life in a different direction since the advent of the assembly line in 1913. Mass production of automobiles by Henry Ford’s new company required many hands to fulfill the required orders for new automobiles. Assembly lines reduced the time required to build a car from more than 12 hours to two and a half hours. (The assembly line was actually invented by Ransom E. Olds, although history often credits Ford with the concept).
Bush, having been raised on a farm near Mt. Hope, realized that these familiar scenes were eventually going to disappear altogether. “I photograph the old, wooden barns,” he explained.
He ventures into overgrown areas where time seems to have stood still, although he is always respectful about keeping his distance and does not trespass into the interior of these structures. He can often be seen standing on the side of the road, sometimes little more than a pathway, photographing what others might drive by every day on the way to work and never notice. He was once rewarded for his interest with what he thought was a snake bite. (A trip to the ER proved that it was not a snake bite, although it was red and swollen, probably a spider).
He has often been told that a structure was haunted, but he’s not going inside to find out, content to capture the exterior of these deserted structures so that there will be a record of their evolution. They were once proud and tall, sheltering families and in the case of barns, animals, from life’s storms. Now they are a silent testimony of the passage of time.
In some instances, Bush has recorded the existence of a place only to find it gone the next week. “I’m always glad that I got it saved by photographing it before it disappeared,” he said.
If you have ever played in a barn on a rainy day, cuddled a kitten in a hay loft or played hide and seek among the bales of cotton or hay, then you know the nostalgia that old barns evoke. If your grandmother had an attic in a rambling house, added to as the family grew, creating a unique kind of haphazard architecture, then you know the longing for that period of your life. That’s the feeling people get when they gaze at Bush’s photographs. They are like traveling back in time to a place you long for now but cannot ever visit again.
Bush seldom photographs people, just the occasional selfie with a classmate at a reunion, or a family group shot at Christmas. His passion lies in these forgotten places where time and the elements have worked a certain kind of magic for him. A preservationist of our past, he wants to leave behind a reminder of times when families worked together to be able to sustain themselves with the fruits of their labor. And he is right…there is a real beauty in the patina of the weathered wood, the rust on a metal barn roof, the slant of a porch roof, even the vines and weeds that form a lace canopy over the buildings as if to give them a last touch of beauty before they tumble to the ground.
You can see more of Bush’s work on Facebook at ‘Conley’s Country Treasure’s Photo Sharing Group’ and on Pinterest under his name.