2006.10.07: October 7, 2006: Headlines: COS - Philippines: Photography: Lexington Herald-Leader: The photos in Philippines RPCV James Archambeault's Historic Kentucky, the new Archambeault book being released on Thursday, were shot over 30 years

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Philippines: Peace Corps Philippines: The Peace Corps in the Philippines: 2006.10.07: October 7, 2006: Headlines: COS - Philippines: Photography: Lexington Herald-Leader: The photos in Philippines RPCV James Archambeault's Historic Kentucky, the new Archambeault book being released on Thursday, were shot over 30 years

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The photos in Philippines RPCV James Archambeault's Historic Kentucky, the new Archambeault book being released on Thursday, were shot over 30 years

The photos in Philippines RPCV James Archambeault's Historic Kentucky, the new Archambeault book being released on Thursday, were shot over 30 years

Why are Archambeault's photographs so popular? They are the way we envision our state when we're away from it -- the best days, the kindest light, the most flattering angles. It's not that Archambeault photographs are sentimental. They're quiet and clean and simple -- like Shaker architecture rendered on film.

The photos in Philippines RPCV James Archambeault's Historic Kentucky, the new Archambeault book being released on Thursday, were shot over 30 years

In its best light

Lexington Herald-Leader

October 07, 2006

There is the Kentucky that you and I drive through, and then there is James Archambeault's Kentucky.

Archambeault's looks better.

In Archambeault's photographs, cloud fluff is more nuanced, the grass more velvety, the rough edges smoothed off Kentucky's often harsh, humid, buggy beauty.

Archambeault gets to do what many of us consider a passing fancy: Park a car and go roaming in Central Kentucky farmfields, or the forest bordering the Mountain Parkway. Peek in the windows of decrepit filling stations. Check out the burger-tater tots-Slush Puppy menu at the Creamy Whip in Jamestown. Run a hand over the silvered wood of a tobacco barn.

And Archambeault, 63, knows when a shot works -- really, really works.

'You know when you take it, 99 percent of the time. You know emotionally,' he said. 'A lot of times I almost laugh out loud, I'm so thrilled.'

The photos in James Archambeault's Historic Kentucky, the new Archambeault book being released on Thursday, were shot over 30 years. Archambeault assembled about 1,000 photos, pared them down, looked for the gaps, shot more photos and then pared those down before sending a final 155 photos to his book designer.

'It's my obsession, really, to find and capture beauty,' Archambeault said. 'Some would say that's trite. ... But that's what I do.'

The Archambeault look

In Archambeault's photographs, audio poles at a drive-in near Mount Sterling poke out of the earth like winter paperwhites; a weathered Grant County farmer peers into the distance, sitting at a kitchen table adorned with a can of coffee and a Wiedemann beer; a Ballard County shopkeeper in a housedress and sneakers shells beans; a light fog reflects the image of High Bridge in Jessamine County onto the glassy surface of the Kentucky River.

All of those photos are part of a Kentucky that history is passing by. History, Archambeault says, is 'the emotional trigger' behind historic preservation. Some parts of Kentucky vanish every year -- more mom-and-pop gas stations and fescue seed vendors and Dairy Freezes vanish into strip malls, BP stations with plastic cappuccino and Sonic drive-throughs. Almost nobody thinks to make note of what those vanished bits of Kentuckiana looked like, and how their absence changes the rhythm of life here.

Archambeault does.

Besides photography, Archambeault has several big interests. He also dabbles in real estate, loves reading history and might write a book of poems.

After majoring in journalism at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Archambeault did a stint in the Peace Corps. He came to Kentucky to work for United Press International in Louisville.

And stayed.

Just as it has become difficult to imagine a Kentucky without the late historian Thomas Clark, it is tough to imagine the great Kentucky photographs without Archambeault.

Why are Archambeault's photographs so popular? They are the way we envision our state when we're away from it -- the best days, the kindest light, the most flattering angles. It's not that Archambeault photographs are sentimental. They're quiet and clean and simple -- like Shaker architecture rendered on film.

And then there's the back story implied in each photograph.

Said Archambeault: 'I like my photographs to tell a story, often within one frame.'

He pointed out a 1984 photograph in Historic Kentucky: a battered house in Owen County sits in a winter landscape with a pile of coal out front. To some this would seem bleak: a drafty house in a cold season. But Archambeault is a glass-half-full kind of guy. He sees the coal and firewood and infers that people inside have enough to keep warm.

The photograph keeps you guessing. Who lives there? Do they stay warm? Do they stay in just one room, huddled by a stove, praying for spring?

High times

First, Archambeault wants you to know that he does not have stilts, a small airplane or a parasail. That breathtaking shot of Frankfort, with the sun just warming the Capitol dome and the river's morning glow -- a photo that makes Frankfort look like some kind of fairy kingdom -- was taken from the Frankfort Cemetery just above Kentucky's most influential valley town.

Most of Archambeault's photos are shot close to the road on which he arrived -- and on which he clocks 40,000 to 50,000 miles a year.

Archambeault does not stage his shots, and he does not try, say, to make the ground look more velvety than it is.

There are constraints, even for photographers who have become a state institution. Summer is Archambeault's least favorite season for photography; he calls it boring. Spring and autumn have more color, and winter has snow -- ever more infrequent in Kentucky, Archambeault notes -- and that chilly winter light.

Archambeault also likes snow. When he and his wife, Lee, were visiting Key West in February 1998, they saw a newspaper photograph of a man in Lexington shoveling his snow.

Lee turned to her husband and said, 'We're going home, aren't we?'

Archambeault remembers getting some stunning snow photos that week.

He might visit the site of a potential photograph as many as seven times, assessing how light falls around the area, what the area looks like during different seasons, what people or animals pass that way.

Finding the light

He annotates his Kentucky county map book.

He does not fear getting lost, for two reasons: He might find a compelling image, and it is nearly impossible to get thoroughly lost in Kentucky when armed with a map.

He carries no weapons in his travels, preferring to talk himself out of tricky situations with suspicious locals and outraged canines encountered on the way to scouting possible locations.

How do his pictures get that Archambeault look -- the luminous water, unbroken fall forest, shimmering winter wheat?

Archambeault says he doesn't create the look: It exists, and he captures it.

'Nature creates this, I don't. I just record.'

Copyright © 2006 Lexington Herald-Leader, All Rights Reserved.

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