In the shadows of Tennessee with photographer Jim Baughman


With its mixture of old and new, constantly changing demographics and a lot of strong opinions and personalities, Tennessee is an ever-replenishing source of inspiration for Jim Baughman. The photographer, whose work is a study of the tranquil beauty that exists in in the shadows, moved to Sweetwater, TN, after spending time in the Navy and living in the Ozarks woods for seven years. Now, Baughman spends his time travelling around Tennessee in search of a quiet moment, and the mostly overlooked corners of rural life.

Get to know more about the photographer in search of life’s “inconsequential moments” below.


When did you begin to take an interest in photography?

I spent the first 12 years of my life on a farm in Northern Missouri. My parents are wonderful people and they always encouraged my sister and I to be creative, independent, and strong. When you grow up poor and sort of in the middle of nowhere, I think it’s pretty normal for kids to develop a keen sense of creativity and resourcefulness. You dream up interesting worlds for entertainment.

My folks had a Kodak camera, and I started taking pictures when I was pretty young. We moved to Wyoming when I was twelve, and the landscape and climate were so different from anything I had ever seen -- I became acutely aware of my surroundings and the contrasting scenery, climate and light. I went from creating elaborate dream worlds to escape the Midwest, to really noticing the grandeur and truly incredible scenery around me in our new home in Wyoming.

In high school I took some photography classes and started learning about composition, developing, and printing, and at that point I was hooked. After high school, I decided to join the Navy, following in the footsteps of my dad and grandpa. I took a Greyhound from Rawlins, WY (which my dad refers to as “Browneye, WY”) to Denver, CO, to enlist. When I sat down with the recruitment officer, I told him that I wanted to be a Navy photographer. He was sort of dismissive of my request, saying that those positions were very limited and none had been offered to new recruits in over seven years. I got up to leave; told him I wasn't interesting in joining up if they wouldn't let me do photography, and he stopped me as I was walking out the door. Next thing I knew, I was at basic training in Orlando, then headed to the US Naval School of Photography in Pensacola, FL.

I was home ported on an aircraft carrier out of Yokouska, Japan for two years, and my photography assignments included everything from reconnaissance to documenting drunken post-fight sailors at liberty ports. I photographed government dignitaries and did photojournalism for a variety of publications. I moved from Japan to San Diego, where I was stationed at North Imaging Command Pacific in Miramar, CA, and mostly did public affairs and photo journalism.

After five years in the Navy I bounced around between Wyoming, Colorado and Missouri, and eventually moved to a cabin in the Ozarks, near Fordland, MO. I lived in the woods for about seven years, and focused on nature photography and documenting rural Ozark life -- beautiful, special, wonderful place. When I left the woods, I moved to Sweetwater, TN, which is when I started to refine my eye for photographing inconsequential moments.


How would you describe your work?
Inconsequential moments. I just photograph what I find interesting, which tends to be quiet, mostly overlooked corners of rural life, with good shadows.

Who/what inspires you?

My current favorite photographer is Mark Cohen– bold images and great composition. I am inspired by nature, good stories, and people who spin a good yarn. And Lightnin’ Hopkins.

How much planning goes into your work?

I don't spend a lot time planning a photograph, but often I'll drive by a spot where I see a good subject and will think on it, sometimes obsessively, and will come back to get the photo in the right light.

How do you engage with social media?

I enjoy social media a lot. It’s a great place to share photography and find work of so many other photographers, many of whom I might not otherwise have stumbled upon. Photography is such a fluid medium, and social media is the perfect platform to stay connected to what other artists are doing. It helps me to continuously look at the world with fresh eyes.



What is your favorite location to photograph in Tennessee?
Currently, downtown Nashville. It's a bizarre mixture of old and new, constantly changing demographics and a lot of strong opinions and personalities. I also love to photograph in rural Appalachia of East Tennessee. I am always drawn to authentic characters and unfiltered depictions of local culture.

What makes you most nostalgic about your home state?

What is the best lesson life in Tennessee has taught you?
For every closed-minded person you meet that might tempt you to stereotype the region, there are many that will surprise you with intense insight, kindness, and empathy - and humor. Southerners tend to be great storytellers. If you are not from this region, learning to slow down and listen really pays off.

What is your favorite Tennessee cliché?
I think the south generally is lumped in with a lot clichés related to ignorance, racism, incest, etc., some of which definitely do exist in this part of the world. Not being from this region, the issues around race especially bother me. But the south is also a truly unique place with distinct, sometimes extreme, expressions of cultural identity, and a long lineage of amazing artists, like William Eggleston, Cormac McCarthy, Sally Mann, Flannery O’Connor, Sam Shepard, Tennessee Williams, and on and on.


What is the good, the bad and the ugly about Tennessee?
Good: beautiful landscapes & super interesting/kind people.
Bad/ugly: Super soaked in God and flag. History of racism.

Favorite place in Tennessee?
Bald River Falls – Tellico Plains, TN. All the beauty of the Smoky Mountains in the Townsend/Gatlinburg area, but no people. Great creek & waterfall swimming. It is a great example of natural Appalachia.

Best music venue in Tennessee?
Ryman Auditorium. East Nashville has some great smaller venues… Family Wash & Basement East.

What's next? 

Keep moving. Keep photographing.


Words: Emily Freedman