Many Nashvilles, One Book

Bill Monroe Mural

It’s always exciting when there’s a new book born in the Parnassus family, and that’s doubly true for this one. Nashville: Scenes from the New American South is the result of a creative collaboration between author Ann Patchett and photographer Heidi Ross, who have together created — to quote the recent review in Chapter 16 — “a glorious blur of music and lights and smiles and signs and people always on the move.” If you’re in Nashville, we hope you’ll join us next Tuesday, November 13, at 5:30 p.m. as we toast Ann, Heidi, their gorgeous new book, and our seventh year as Nashville’s independent bookstore for independent people. And if you’re not in Nashville, well, we’d love to send you an autographed copy so you can get to know our city better.

Read Ann’s blog post from earlier this year about how the book came to be, and find out more about Heidi Ross in today’s Q&A:

Where/how did you get your start as a photographer?

Heidi Ross_1.1HR: I’ve always had photographers in my life. When I was little, my dad used to set up a darkroom in the bathroom and develop prints, and when I got older, I had friends who were professional and amateur photographers. But it wasn’t until I moved to Nashville in 2004 that I really picked up the camera myself. I hadn’t thought about photography as a career, I just always loved photographs, in much the same way I love books. The love I feel for images and the love I feel for words are very similar.

What does the title mean to you? And what makes Nashville such a fitting example of “the New South”?

HR: I think people still tend to have a particular image of “the South” in their heads. What makes this book “the New South,” to me, is simply that it contains a collection of Nashvilles rather than one all-encompassing, lifestyle-brand version of the city. There have always been many Nashvilles, but now — at a time when nearly 100 people move to the city every day — it’s particularly true. Even the Nashvilles that look much like they did in the ’50s or ’60s, right down to what people are wearing, are juxtaposed with Nashvilles that are new and coming into their own.

You’ve shown your work in various exhibits over the years, but this is the first time a collection of your photography has been turned into a book. How is that experience different for you? And how do you think the experience differs for readers and viewers?

Nashville rgb (1)
The book features an introduction by fellow Nashvillian and author Jon Meacham.

HR: The experiences are entirely different in most practical and logistical ways, but what’s the same, for me anyway, is the hope that looking at the images will evoke an experience for people. That even if they don’t remember the details of a shot later, they’ll remember how it felt. Shooting this project was that way for me. It’s about how the city felt — this certain place in this certain year, little flies trapped in amber. It occurred to me halfway through that everything I was shooting could be gone by the time the book came out. It could have made me sad, I suppose, but what I felt most was an overwhelming sense of gratitude that I moved here when I did and got to see those older Nashvilles in the paleolithic, pre-social-media era as well as the Nashvilles popping up now.

Talk about your collaboration with Ann Patchett. How did you work together?

HR: Ann and I sat down early on and she went over things she thought were important to include, and I went over things I thought were important to include, but once I started shooting, a lot of that went out the window because what’s happening in front of you as you’re walking along with your camera will tell you what’s important.

That said, there were sides of Nashville I simply wouldn’t have had access to without Ann. Her name attached to this project let people know it was legitimate and not just some photographer trying to shoot famous people. I wouldn’t even have known Yo Yo Ma, Chris Thile, and Edgar Meyer were rehearsing privately at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, or have gotten into the Nashville Public Library’s gala. Likewise, I don’t think Ann would have said, “What about the resurgence of motorcycle clubs in Nashville and how they meet in front of Dino’s before they go out to ride? Can you go shoot that?” The collaboration was a microcosm of the book itself: different Nashvilles and different facets of life here mixing it up.

Hardest shot to get?

HR: The one that broke my camera: a man on Broadway with his guitar and a cigarette who looked like he’d been there since before the street was built. I turned the corner to head home after a long, hot afternoon of shooting (I thought it was the hottest, but this was before I’d been to Steeplechase) and there he was. I didn’t alter him in Photoshop one bit. Every line in his face was there. I think he was wearing eyeliner but it was hard to tell. My immediate thought was “Pirate!” I asked if I could take his photo, he said “Sure,” I clicked the shutter, my camera strap broke, the whole thing fell to the concrete, and the lens shattered. But I did get the shot.

Most unexpected result of a photo shoot?

HR: Discovering “congealed salads” at The Picnic.

OK, this may be impossible to answer but . . . favorite photo in the book?

Fisk Jubilee Singers.jpg
The Fisk Jubilee Singers — photo by Heidi Ross, from Nashville: Scenes from the New American South

HR: This is my favorite photo because it was by far the most meaningful experience I had shooting the book, though I don’t think the image does it justice. I don’t know if I could do it justice, frankly. The Fisk Jubilee Singers ensemble was established in 1871 and is renowned worldwide. Most of the original singers were former slaves. They’ve performed for kings and queens, all over the states, and of course at Fisk University. But the day I photographed them was an average nighttime student rehearsal. It’s a small room, all the students with their backpacks and sweatshirts, no choral robes, sitting in desks, a forest of music stands crammed into the back of the room. As soon as they started singing I started crying. I was so glad I had a camera in front of my face.

I still can’t describe the feeling, but I think about it all the time. I feel like we usually recognize important moments only in retrospect, but this was one of those rare times where I was fully aware of it as it was happening. The magnitude of it. I shot a few seconds of video on my phone and posted it to Instagram, and I still go back and listen to it at least once a week. That shoot was also when I decided to donate half of any profits from prints of images from the Nashville series to the American Civil Liberties Union.

What’s something — or who’s someone — you’ve always wanted to photograph but haven’t yet?

HR: Well, the list has dwindled considerably since shooting this book, but I’d love to photograph comedians, including animals. I have never appreciated more the skills of those who make me laugh. It really is such good medicine. I owe a debt of gratitude/sanity to everyone who ever contributed to the Drunk History series.

You’re an avid reader. What were you reading during the year you were shooting the Nashville book?

A: An incomplete list of favorites: Where the Past Begins by Amy Tan (please read this, guys, I need someone to talk to about it); Circe by Madeline Miller; Hunger by Roxane Gay; The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit, and Feel Free by Zadie Smith. I just read advance copies of two books coming out this spring that I can’t wait to give to everyone I know… I Miss You When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott (and not just because I know the author) and Inheritance by Dani Shapiro.

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A Toast to Nashville
(and to our seven years here!)
Tuesday, November 13, 2018
5:30 p.m. at Parnassus Books

Join us for champagne and light snacks! Both Heidi Ross and Ann Patchett will be on hand to sign books. Limited-edition prints of photographs from the book will also be on display and for sale, with half of proceeds going to the ACLU.