When Thomas Wolfe titled his 1940 novel You Can’t Go Home Again, he was talking about the way things change, irrevocably, when you’ve been away for a while. But for photographer John Fischer, it was partly the process of change that made it possible for him to feel at home once more in his native habitat after years of living in Virginia, Boston and San Diego. Fischer’s new self-published book, Ulster County: Discovering Home, captures a moment in time in which some old familiar settings are fading away and new ones coming into focus. And in the process of making it, he discovered that the county he was once eager to flee was becoming the place where he felt most at home — mainly on account of the people he got to know as he was taking their pictures.
The son of an IBMer, Fischer grew up in the Rosendale hamlet of Tillson and attended Coleman High School in 1996. The closure of the Kingston plant hit his family hard. “The economy was at a low,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “My main goal was to get myself out of Ulster County for college and beyond. I uttered the words ‘I never want to live here again’ to at least one friend.”
Fischer found steady work in sales, rarely visiting his former upstate turf until an evocative photo of the Rosendale trestle, taken while visiting friends in 2008, turned his attention toward pursuing photography as more than just a hobby. Over the next ten years, while working for a company that allowed him to telecommute, he began to spend more and more time in Ulster while honing his skills. His landscape photography in particular drew admiration, and he established a website and Facebook page to begin selling prints online. The Wired Gallery’s Sevan Melikyan arranged for Fischer to have a solo pop-up gallery show in Rosendale, and his photos of stunning local scenery began appearing on the covers of travel guides.
Between 2010 and 2016, Fischer traveled to all 50 states, and then extended his explorations to other countries, collecting images wherever he went. His wanderings were facilitated by couch-surfing referrals from new friends he had made in Ulster County while taking pictures of them and the places with which they were associated. Eventually it all began to jell into a dream for a coffee-table photography book. But this was to be no mere picturesque travelogue: It was turning into a love song to the sometimes-melancholy beauty of the valley in which he had been born and raised, as filtered through the vibrant souls who dwell here now and the work that they do.
Fischer is the first to admit that portrait photography isn’t really his forte. His visual sweet spot is the place where Nature and human activity intersect: buildings, some in ruins, being reclaimed by vegetation; roads and railways and bridges and cement mines and kilns, framed by rural beauty; small businesses in the process of thriving or vanishing. While Fischer is adamant that “This isn’t a history book,” the long timeline of the project has made it possible for him to capture before-and-after shots of places in transition, such as the Nevele and Williams Lake resorts and the Rosendale Pool. But for every disheveled, abandoned locale he spotlights, there’s another series of shots of people helping people, such as at a group home in Kingston for people suffering from mental illness and addictions.
Fischer says that he started off with a list of people he wanted to depict, beginning with some who had been influential in his life growing up, then adding politicians in their offices, business-owners at work, farmers in their fields, people just enjoying themselves, at street festivals or playing sports. Well-known local “characters,” such as Rosendale’s Uncle Willy Guldy, were obvious choices to include. People he knew introduced him to people he didn’t, and over time “happenstance” became the driver of the work. “I started with people who I thought might be interesting,” he says. “Then it was more like, I was living my life and decided to bring my camera along.”
That quality of serendipity shines through in the immediacy of these images. This isn’t the sort of photo book where you can tell that the artist spent days scouting a particular spot for the perfect atmospheric conditions and lighting. Freshness, rather than artifice, is the core of its appeal; the photographer seems to be discovering (or rediscovering) it all, and taking the reader along with him for the ride.
Nowadays, Fischer is living in Kingston full-time, still holding down his remote sales job while marketing the book. Published in September 2018, its first printing of 1,000 copies is already nearly depleted: down to under 60 copies as of presstime, mostly through website sales. The price per copy is $40, and $5 of each sale is donated to four local charities: UlsterCorps, Family of Woodstock, Angel Food East and the Rosendale Food Pantry. “I’m trying to figure out whether to make more or not, or whether to make changes and publish a second edition,” the photographer says. “It’s not a purely financial decision. I never did it to make money. It’s important to me from an artistic perspective. Getting to meet people and hand them the book is enjoyable, too.”
To get your own copy of Ulster County: Discovering Home before the first edition is all sold out, or to see some examples of John Fischer’s work, visit www.noroadunturned.com or www.facebook.com/johnfischerphotography.