I saw the angel. It was hovering nearly eight feet tall, hand-painted on a massive cinderblock retaining wall. I desperately wanted to stop and photograph it, but the light was fleeting, and dinner was waiting. We drove on, but I looked back and saw a sign that read, “Welcome to Northfork, Basketball Capital of the World.”
I was riding in a pickup truck with coal miner Mike Plumley. We had spent a long day in darkness, photographing the tunnels of the Pinnacle Coal Mine in rural West Virginia for the Washington Post Magazine. It was a year since the Sago Mine explosion and I was there for a cover story about the culture of coal mining.
After supper, I went online to read about McDowell County and Northfork. From the 1950’s through 70’s McDowell County set national records for coal. But the industry collapsed in the 1980s and coal miners in central Appalachia lost 70,000 jobs. By the year 2000, per capita income in McDowell had fallen to $10,174—the lowest in the state—and 52% of its children were living below the poverty line. I also read that the Northfork High School boys’ basketball team had won more consecutive state titles than any high school in the world.
The next evening I was back in the center of Northfork, across the railroad tracks that divided the downtown. In the center of this aging coal town, with its buildings shuttered and in need of repair, was a freshly painted basketball court. A massive retaining wall held back the mountain from this asphalt playground. And there on the wall the eight-foot angel, the dove of peace, the words “Jesus loves you” with the letters “NF” emblazened on the backboard––all freshly painted along with the hoop and the court lines, the swings and the seesaw by the townspeople of Northfork. As I began photographing, I couldn’t help but recognize the importance of this playground to the community, and at its center a basketball court.
I had begun to see hoops and backboards wherever I went, and I realized they were a ubiquitous feature on the American landscape. I found them scattered through the South, on remote islands off the coast of Maine, in affluent suburbs of Atlanta, on Native American reservations in South Dakota, in Oregon’s majestic public parks, and in every town, city and countryside in the United States.
I found a charter school court in Harlem framed by a mural reminiscent of the West Virginia basketball angel with enormous hands in all shades of black, brown, yellow and white, reaching upwards towards a beautifully painted ball. In Shawnee, Wyoming, in the midst of the vast stretch of plains I came upon a one-room schoolhouse and in the prairie grass below, a swing set, two seesaws, one merry go-round, a pump-house, and a single basketball goal with a metal net, all surrounded with post-and-wire fence. Everything was freshly painted in an array of vibrant colors. As I took the simplest photograph of this playground in the Wyoming landscape, I couldn’t help but think of it as a kind of visual oasis in a monochrome expanse of land and sky.
Over the course of ten years I photographed thousands of hoops across 35 states and more recently in a half-dozen countries including: South Africa, Namibia, Jamaica, Italy, Mexico and Rwanda.
While the design and specifications for a basketball court and backboard are relatively straighforward, the permutations are almost endless. In the mountains of Rwanda I came upon a primary school court with backboards constructed of wood planks and a full-court set in red clay, all surround by fields of corn and tea. (Two more examples here.)
For most of my career, my photography has been people-focused, describing communities through portraiture. I have undertaken projects that are highly collaborative with diverse groups of people. Seeking a more solitary journey and an excuse to travel, shooting basketball hoops in their many forms and landscapes became a new way for me to see and better understand the world in which we live.
I have never photographed the players, finding that the “place” speaks clearly about its users. I could easily imagine the players and in some cases, have met them. But more often in the stillness of the empty court—photographed in early morning or late afternoon light—by just looking, I came to know a great deal about a neighborhood, its character and values. The setting of the court, the elements of its design and construction, silently gave away more information about its inhabitants than the players themselves.
A photograph of someone making a great shot or a great move takes place in a fraction of a second, but a photograph of that same court taken without people is about a period of time, the layered history of a place. It is about the people who played on that court, the people who built that community, who have come and gone. These courts without people engage our imaginations the way a great portrait does. They make us think about all the life that led up to this moment, this expression, this place.