William A. Barnhill and Appalachian Crafts

“Since I was ten years old and swapped a jack knife for an Indian arrowhead I have had a hobby of some kind.  My hobbies have always centered around the handicrafts.  The materials have been wood, leather, metals and photographic.

“My hobby has materialized into quite a definite pattern after many years of collecting and making things.  This pattern is based on the thought of reviving and recreating the craftsmanship of our American pioneers.  The art of simplicity.  The art of making articles of a practical value from the materials and with the tools at hand, each piece displaying the rugged individuality of the craftsman.”                              - From an essay, “My Hobbies” by William A. Barnhill

 William Barnhill was drawn to the making of crafts from an early age, and he brought this lifelong interest to Asheville in 1914, when he began to photograph the people of the region.  His photographs document many aspects of early twentieth-century Appalachian life, but crafts receive a particular focus in his work.  Barnhill collected images of mountain people making textiles, pottery, baskets, and other items used in their daily lives.  He captured the steps involved in these crafts and understood the importance of collecting these people’s stories and their methods during an ever-changing American society of the early 1900s.

 Barnhill was fascinated with, as he called them, the “old timers” and their processes of creating everyday necessities with their hands.  Unaware of the revival of Appalachian crafts that was taking place during the same time as his work, Barnhill remained firm that his only interest was a personal curiosity about how people “made every simple thing.”  He never attempted to make a statement about the region, the people, or the craft work through his photography, but instead was simply “just photographing people.”