Duke University Alumni Magazine

Absorbing Images of Life
The Photography of Caroline Vaughan
by Bridget Booher

Untitled 1993
© 1996 Caroline Vaughan

n her breathtaking new book, Borrowed Time, photographer Caroline Vaughan '71 transports us to places that exist somewhere between truth and invention. Landscapes are simultaneously inviting and inscrutable. A sinkhole becomes a portal to another world, dark and seductive. A waterfall whispers its primeval origins. A swamp writhes with hidden life.

Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia 1974
© 1996 Caroline Vaughan

     And then there are the portraits of people she loves, and the portraits of complete strangers. Or are they? From a pair of working-class, identical-twin brothers to Vaughan's own parents, whose expressions of calm reserve recur throughout the book, each face is at once familiar and original. We have met these people before, in church or at the hardware store. Some display a proud acceptance of their unconventional beauty; others share honest, unguarded traces of sadness. There is no posturing or preening here; instead, each individual is the sum of his or her own life's experiences. The gravity of living--hardness and loss, caring and love--is revealed in each gaze.

     Borrowed Time, published this October by Duke Press, is a mid-career assessment of Vaughan's work. While her talents are well-known in regional circles, the book should bring her to the attention of a larger audience. Born and reared in Durham, Vaughan has worked at Duke for fourteen years in an office job that has nothing to do with photography. She is shy, serious, attentive, and unassuming. If you meet her in passing, you might never guess she's an astonishingly gifted artist. But talk to her for just a few minutes and you'll grasp the steady, burning intensity that fuels her visual explorations. You'll begin to see things you overlooked, the details and implications of each dying leaf or line in someone's face.

Continental Divide Wyoming, 1975
© 1996 Caroline Vaughan

     "If you sit by a creek for six hours and watch the light change and hear the crickets and see the flora and fauna, you almost begin to imagine how the rocks were carved by the water," says Vaughan. "You start to feel the abrasion and erosion. At that point, you are photographing something that has transpired over many lifetimes. You have a much keener appreciation for what it is.

     "If, on the other hand, you stop at the top of a cliff, get out of your car, point your tiny disc camera toward the canyon, and hop back in the car, I don't know if you've seen it or not. But if you got lost in that canyon without water for two days, you would have felt it. It's a matter of how much you're willing to extend yourself into the environment."

     From an early age, Vaughan knew she wanted to tell stories. At Duke, she studied creative writing with William Blackburn, Wallace Kaufman '61, and Reynolds Price '55 (who wrote the introduction to Borrowed Time). Despite the encouragement she received from these estimable teachers, Vaughan found herself drawn more to visual than written expression. Having learned photography in high school, she continued to take pictures as an undergraduate and helped launch the student publication Latent Image.

William and Mary 1993
© 1996 Caroline Vaughan
     In her senior year, a group of students invited photographer Minor White to campus. While her peers clamored around White, shoving their pictures at him, Vaughan hung back. Knowing that he suffered from angina and needed low-fat foods, she brought yogurt and fruit along, which he eagerly accepted after politely refusing a steady stream of country ham, eggs, and red-eye gravy. He asked to see her work and later agreed to accept her into his intensive graduate program at M.I.T.

The Murray Brothers, 1990, above;
Joan Brannon and Jean Brannon, 1990, right
© 1996 Caroline Vaughan

     At about the same time, Vaughan also met Imogen Cunningham, who would come to serve as her second mentor. The balance of White's cerebral, academic approach to creativity and Cunningham's liberated, in-the-world spirit shaped Vaughan as she developed her own perspective. Tragically, Vaughan was traveling across the country when she heard on the radio that White had died. Cunningham died the next day. "I remember feeling so shocked. Here I was halfway across America and my East Coast mentor and my West Coast mentor had died one day apart. I really felt that I didn't have any guide."

     As she began to steer her own course, Vaughan experimented with different photographic formats and techniques. She is equally adept at capturing the spare nuances of a black-and-white still life and the sensuous, saturated lushness of a color print. Through the years, Vaughan's work has been shown in dozens of galleries, museums, magazines, and books. Reynolds Price chose one of Vaughan's evocative photographs for the Kate Vaiden book cover, and has trusted her to do his portrait for a number of books.

     But Vaughan's artistic progression has not always followed a safe, linear path. In the late Seventies, she suffered a debilitating illness first diagnosed as manic depression and later revealed to be Graves' disease, a condition of hyperthyroidism easily treated and now in re- mission. In the midst of her affliction, Vaughan says that she saw visions of things that weren't there. People began to look the same, with red hair and fair skin, as if they were all akin. Instead of being alarmed that her hold on reality was becoming frighteningly tenuous, Vaughan says she felt strangely calm.

Lindsay Dearborne Huppe, 1973
© 1996 Caroline Vaughan

     "I felt that everyone I met was kindred and kind," she recalls. "There was no evil or danger. I could walk up to anyone and not be afraid. Clearly, I was in a state where something really, really awful could have happened to me. I'm lucky that nothing did. But part of me felt that I was in paradise, because I was able to function without any artifice, and I saw only goodness in the people I encountered."

     The episode continues to have a profound effect on how she views the world, she says. "I'm still very trusting of people. I don't believe that people are born evil. I think sometimes people are harmed or damaged and they don't ever find a way to be healed. Sometimes they can get into a cycle where they harm others. That frightens me, and I try not to be in the path of that. But some of the stories in those people's eyes and their hearts are just as interesting to me as people who have done only good deeds their whole life. The things that make us alike, the common denominators, are more compelling to me than the things that make us different."

     In a sense, too, her portrait work is an attempt to duplicate that utter lack of pretense she both perceived and experienced through her debilitation. "I'm much more interested in what happens when you drop your mask and quit trying to be who you think you should be. It's that loss of control, not holding it all in and fending off the world. It's what's left of you at the end of the day; sometimes you're tired, sometimes elated, but it's your own original self."

Vaughn: capturing the gravity of life
© 1995 Elizabeth Matheson

     She says her photography is also a kind of safeguard against the world, allowing her to watch things she might not be able to handle unequipped, such as an early-morning hog kill. Preserving distinct, precious moments is also a way to stall inevitable loss. Vaughan's parents, Mary and William, have been her most frequent models. She is intently concentrating on them because "at some point they will be gone and I won't be able to make their portraits."

     The process has become an unspoken, loving conversation, she says, a way of addressing things that have no words. "One of the reasons I photograph my father so much is that he's not a very verbal person. He doesn't talk a lot, so I never know what's in his head. I've found most of my information in the creases of his face. And it's been a very silent, long dialogue that we've had for about ten years now."

     That nonverbal communication is a central theme in Vaughan's life's work. From her innate ability to get people to unveil their earnest, inner selves to the finished photographs that reveal different truths to different viewers, Vaughan has become the accomplished storyteller she set out to be.                                

All photographs are copyrighted by Caroline Vaughan. All rights reserved. Vaughan will sign copies of Borrowed Time at Duke's Gothic Bookshop on October 26, Charlotte's The Light Factory on November 2, and Durham's Craven Allen Gallery on November 10.

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