Barbecue by-the-book

07.17.14_FatBoys_Prattville0072Occasionally my job as a photographer really is what most people imagine. Day-to-day a photographer’s job is like any other. We do paperwork, make phone calls, tackle daily tasks while taking on jobs and assignments to pay the bills. But all the while we’re hoping for that special shoot, that terrific light, that perfect moment or assignment that opens opportunities and challenges us to lift and expand our creativity.06.04.14_TinTopCalera0052-Edit

This past summer I was lucky enough to get one of those assignments. The Department of Tourism for State of Alabama has declared 2015 the Year of Barbecue in Alabama. Among many other fun projects planned they decided to do a book celebrating all the wonderful barbecue across the state. I was fortunate to be assigned to shoot it. A good friend and wonderful writer Annette Thompson traveled the state for months researching the pit masters and the styles looking for the best representation of what Alabama barbecue is. Her task, an enviable one, required her to eat A LOT of barbecue.  (Under the heading of ‘someone had to do it’.) Annette’s travels took her to well over 100 ‘joints’.  Fortunately for me she was able to narrow it down a bit before I followed up photographically.06.13.14_BBQShackDothan0170-Edit

I’ve been lucky enough to photograph stories on Texas Barbecue and Memphis Barbecue,  barbecue in the Carolina’s and even Kansas City Barbecue. I’m a fan of every one. Are all worthy of their hard-earned reputations. But I discovered Alabama Barbecue is as good and often better than any of those places. It’s my belief that any lack of recognition for Alabama’s barbecue is because it lacks any single style like those other places. If you say Memphis or Carolina barbecue aficionados know exactly what to expect. Alabama has so many styles and is therefore harder to pigeonhole. And that makes it harder for food and media writers to ‘sell’ it in a story.06.13.14_Webbs2310022-Edit-Edit

Last summer as I worked my way across the state, friends asked if I was getting sick of barbecue. The answer was no, not at all. I enjoy it more than ever. It was  a hot summer behind the wheel and eating all that barbecue would have been too much.  So I didn’t eat a lot but I did taste at almost every place and definitely know my personal favorites. I also gained an education in barbecue tasting and cooking theory. I hope I get to put some of it into practice here at home.07.22.14_SawsBBQ_Homewood0131

I shot in (or somewhat near) 68 towns and cities. I shot 83 of the 88 places in 10 weeks time. My earliest shoot was 3:30 am. Those pits fire up early! My latest shoots time were just after 9pm. The most photos I shot at one place was 801 and the least was 11. The most locations in one day was 7 and in one week was 18. I shot a Big Bob, two Big Daddy’s and a Fat Boy’s. I shot 12,177 photos and gave the art director 1150 for possible use. I drove just under 5000 miles. There were times I thought the shoots would never end and the book would never get done. But it is done and looks great. Ultimately some 75 places made the pages. And I’m ready to start on Volume II any time.07.23.14_Archibalds_Northport0004

Alabama barbecue is terrific. Go to your favorite place soon for lunch. Grab a copy of the book and use it as a guide to seek out great places you didn’t know about near home and across the state from Ft Payne to Mobile, from Florence to Dothan. You’ll find top notch pork, chicken, turkey, brisket, sausage and even bologna and cabbage. And don’t forget the banana pudding and even the great fried pecan pie.06.14.14_BBQHouseTroy0038-Edit

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Wrapping up 2013 and looking forward.

In two weeks it will have been a year since I was laid off at Southern Living Magazine. Not being clairvoyant I couldn’t have imagined this past year. I lost my job and only a couple weeks later our beloved dog Henry died at 14. There were other major stress points in life at that time. And now, a year in, I couldn’t be happier. We’ll miss Henry forever. But I have a new career freelancing, some great clients and we have two new canine family members sharing my day and office space.

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As much as it might have made me anxious for the future it wasn’t all that upsetting to be laid off. In fact there was s sense of relief. I’d been on the road for almost 25 years traveling every week. After 3 million air miles, some 3000 nights in hotels and who knows how many Hertz-Avis road miles I was tired…of the grind….of being physically banged up…of the constant motion…of being gone from home. No complaints though. For some 160 plus days and nights a year I was witness to the best the South has to offer. I worked in an office full of bright creative inventive hard-working curious passionate professionals. We all leaned on each other for help in work and support in life. There could be no better world for a creative to be immersed. 

Looking back now in life’s rear view mirror I have come to recognize what was likely the single best part of my career at the magazine. I traveled week-in and week-out meeting and photographed people with a real passion in their life. They were involved in their community, their art, their craft or business in a way that was inspirational to others and elevated lives around them. It was humbling to try to visually honor what they were doing, to share their life and their story with millions of readers.

I was fairly convinced that after being off the road for a few months I’d get a ‘jones‘ to go, the road would call me. After all, it was all I knew for almost half my life. Hasn’t happened. In fact I’m fighting the urge to be more and more reclusive.  I’m willing but love being home and in my own bed every night. I need to go see family in other states but don’t even want to contemplate getting on a plane.

The most wonderful thing about being laid off, besides being home of course, is that I discovered how many people around me respected me enough to assign me work.  There are no words to express how much their faith and support has meant to me.  Those first few shoots gave me hope that I could survive as a freelancer. I met new people, saw new places and made new friends all here in Birmingham, a town I never really got to know. 

I won’t list all of their names or publications but you have left me smiling more than I have in years. Thank you all. 

I want to share a few photos from the year. They may not be the ‘best’ or most visual but in some way they were significant to me. Learning to shoot for new publications, to shoot something other than ‘Travel Photography’ made me push harder to learn new ways of looking and lighting.  I wish I could say every effort was a success. I can say every one taught me something, whether it was a software technique, lighting or just dealing with life with patience and a smile.

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