- FORM OVER FUNCTION: To Hursley's eye, the Comet Rice building in Stuttgart, Ark. is 'as good as it gets.' The diptych is on display at the Arkansas Arts Center's Delta Exhibition until Aug. 26.
Though Tim Hursley was already working as a photographer when he moved to Little Rock from his hometown of Detroit in 1980, it took him another few decades to begin shooting anything in Arkansas. His focus was elsewhere: New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and wherever great contemporary architecture called out to be captured.
Hursley, 63, achieved international acclaim with soaring images of monumental, glass-and-metal structures, such as the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, or New York's Museum of Modern Art. But museum-goers in Arkansas may be more likely to recognize Hursley's noncommercial projects, which occupy a decidedly more human scale. In 2016, he won the grand prize in the Arkansas Arts Center's Delta Exhibition for an indelible shot of a two-headed, taxidermied calf he bought in Pocahontas. Hursley was also awarded an honorable mention in this year's Delta for "Pine Bluff Mortuary," an image of a low-slung brick building framed by lush, tangled greenery, rusting agri-industrial buildings and a dusky summer sky. It's a consummately Arkansan scene that feels a world away from the sleek urban shapes Hursley shoots for his day job.
"I used to say that I didn't work within 500 miles of Little Rock. I didn't get any work in Memphis, any work in Dallas. ... It was really all around the coasts and Chicago," Hursley said in a recent interview at his studio in Little Rock. "But slowly, I've gotten more regional. ... The South did sort of creep into my work. ... which is cool."
The South has clearly crept into his workspace, which occupies an old, dimly lit, two-story house perched on an isolated bit of hillside near the Arkansas School for the Deaf. The Pocahontas calf is a permanent fixture, along with a pair of giant-sized coveralls pinned to the wall (from Keo, Hursley said, or perhaps Scott), a homemade bench doubling as an advertisement for a trailer park (acquired in Eureka Springs) and a painted mirror depicting a living room murder scene (purchased from a detail shop in Forrest City). In a more carefully curated setting, such folk-art oddities might seem precious; in Hursley's crowded, thoroughly lived-in studio, they're a natural fit.
Long before he began turning his camera closer to home, Hursley's personal work tended toward the fringe. He began shooting brothels in Nevada in the late '80s, creating a series of lonely, gorgeously garish interiors and exteriors mostly devoid of human figures. (He eventually published these in a collection titled "Brothels of Nevada: Candid Views of America's Legal Sex Industry.") In another series, Hursley visited polygamist communities in Utah and other states; "Pine Bluff Mortuary" is part of an ongoing project documenting rural funeral homes.
Hursley's aesthetic sensibilities first veered in a more southerly direction in 1994, when he began a partnership with the Rural Studio, a design-build program at Auburn University. Founded by the architect Samuel Mockbee, the Rural Studio's mission is to put students to work creating innovative, affordable houses in poor communities in Alabama's "Black Belt." Hursley has been making road trips to Hale County, Ala., for over two decades now to chronicle the program's progress.
In the process, he's constantly sifting the landscape for gems. In 2007, while driving on a rural Alabama highway, Hursley's attention was seized by a metal silo twisted almost double by a tornado years earlier, a form that struck him as a kind of found sculpture. This chance encounter sparked a minor obsession: He ended up buying the silo from its owner to prevent it from being scrapped and at one point installed a surveillance camera to capture it in a variety of weather conditions.
Similarly, his current interest in mortuaries was piqued, he said, when he and his wife, Jeanie, took a trip to Helena a few years ago. Their intent was to photograph the levees along the Mississippi River, which was approaching flood stage. Instead, they were sidetracked by the sight of a funeral home clinging to life among a row of abandoned buildings in downtown Helena.
"We got all the way over there and then weren't interested in anything about the levee," he mused. "But driving through town, we did see those two hearses..."
To a photographer who's trained his eye to break down even the most imposing buildings into geometric forms, there can be as much value in a decrepit husk as a gleaming piece of new construction. Asked to identify his favorite pieces of architecture in the state, Hursley ticked off a couple of the usual suspects, including Thorncrown Chapel. Real enthusiasm only rose in his voice, however, once he remembered the Comet Rice building in Stuttgart (Arkansas County).
Hursley's diptych of the ruined building is also on display at this year's Delta Exhibition. A hulking metal box streaked with rust and riddled with holes, it's easy to see the structure as grim — an emblem of the slow, painful fade of once-prosperous farming towns like Stuttgart. But the Comet Rice building strikes Hursley as a "true industrial form," a thing of beauty.
"To me, it doesn't get any better," he said. "I've seen architects try to achieve [that] in Los Angeles or wherever. ... To me, that's as good as it gets."
"Pine Bluff Mortuary" and "Comet Rice" are on display at the Arkansas Arts Center through Aug. 26. Hursley's recent photography will also be featured at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in Charleston, S.C., in an upcoming exhibition titled "Southbound: Photographs of and about the New South," opening Oct. 19. See more of Hursley's work at his website, timothyhursley.com, or follow him on Instagram (@timhursley).