There is an evocative quality to Carol Peachee’s photographs of old barns, historic homes, and former distilleries. Deeply saturated colors pop off her prints with compelling intensity, and the contrast between light and shadow reveals details that a casual observer might have otherwise missed. Through her lens, buildings that have long been abandoned still seem to reverberate with the life and bustle of their glory days.
That Peachee is able to capture these details in ways that enlighten the viewer should be no surprise. While photography is her avocation, her day job is as a licensed professional clinical counselor. Her specialty is helping her clients develop mindful living practices so they too can be more present, aware, and connected in their everyday lives.
The therapist appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss her photography projects as well as her work as the founder and owner of the Center for Mindful Living Practices in Lexington and Berea.
Capturing Bourbon Distilleries and Barns for Posterity
You could say Peachee got the shutter bug from her family.
Her father and grandfather enjoyed taking pictures, and there were always cameras around her family’s home. Then, as a college student in the mid-1970s, Peachee got to study photography in Paris. Her instructor, Janine Niépce, a relative of one of the founders of photography in Europe, encouraged her to take pictures of people.
“I was a little shy for that, so I found myself while I was over there mostly taking [pictures of] architecture,” Peachee says, “and I really, really somehow resonated with that.”
The built environment continued to attract her attentions when she returned to the United States. Over time she found she liked documenting old buildings as a way to preserve their heritage. Things clicked when she photographed the crumbling James E. Pepper Distillery, the Lexington bourbon maker that had been closed to since the late 1950s. (It has since been renovated into a food and entertainment complex.)
“When I started photographing the Pepper Distillery, I wasn’t photographing a bourbon distillery, I was photographing this space, this environment,” she says.
“I guess existentially what I’m interested in is presence and absence,” Peachee continues. “So these empty spaces, there was presence there and yet there was absence there.”
Peachee says she was lucky to be drawn to the bourbon industry just as it was beginning to experience its renaissance. From there, she photographed other long-closed distilleries as well as some undergoing renovation around central Kentucky. A collection of those pictures became “The Birth of Bourbon: A Photographic Tour of Early Distilleries,” published in 2015 by the University Press of Kentucky.
Her new book traces bourbon production from the farmers who grow the grain, to the metalsmiths who make the copper stills, to the coopers who craft the barrels. “Straight Bourbon: Distilling the Industry’s Heritage” comes out in September from Indiana University Press.
Peachee says the distinctive look to her photographs comes from her use of “high dynamic resolution” photography. HDR allows her to layer three different pictures together in ways that give her greater flexibility to manipulate the final image.
“When you get into techniques like HDR, you start to work with the light in an image,” Peachee says. “That’s where the real creativity is… That’s where I get to really have fun, like a painter.”
For her next project, Peachee is photographing old barns around the commonwealth. She says barns reflect the state’s agricultural heritage as well as cultural communities that grew up around activities like tobacco farming and Thoroughbred racing. In some cases they also represent the unique architectural styles of the immigrant farmers who built them.
The project will allow Peachee to document these traditional wooden barns before they are replaced with prefabricated metal structures. Despite her affinity for old buildings and historic industries, Peachee says she doesn’t consider herself any kind of historian.
“I absolutely would call myself a preservationist because historians remember a lot more than I do,” she jokes.
Helping Others Become More Mindful
Peachee says photography is an extension of her counseling work in mindfulness, which she describes as an awareness of the present.
“It’s being rather than doing,” she explains. “Its really very experiential. It’s not very cognitive.”
To help people develop mindfulness, Peachee has them start with five-minute meditation sessions where clients focus on their breathing. If they become distracted by a thought or something in their surroundings, they are to acknowledge it and then quickly shift their attention back to their breathing. With a couple months of regular practice, Peachee says an individual should be able to meditate like this for 15 minutes.
“It’s a skill and what you’re doing is you’re training your brain,” she says.
The result for most people, says Peachee, is better concentration and attention to what’s around us. It also improves a person’s ability to connect with those around them.
“I cannot really be present with you in a sustained conversation if I don’t have patience, if I can’t sit still with myself,” says Peachee.
She says mindfulness is increasingly important in the age of multitasking and ubiquitous cellular and Internet connections. Peachee says she’s not against the computer age – after all, her photography work is done digitally. But she says the temptation to immediately react to every smartphone notification threatens to rob us of the ability to focus on one thing for an extended period of time.
“We need mindfulness more than ever because of how quickly things go, digitally,” Peachee says. “So I think we’re starting practices like mindfulness to make up for what we’ve lost in having to go so quickly.”