Born the son of a rancher and raised in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Rochester photographer James Parker started shooting pictures of his surroundings before he left elementary school. Today, Parker is focusing on the disappearing landscapes across the country that include the vanishing of small family farms.
"I grew up with the whole idea of what dad called 'explores.' We would look for this or that and it involved back roads and watermelon, and a bunch of kids and adults having a good time," he said. "We found these places not only because it was a nice place to have a picnic, but it gave a broader picture of the place and what shaped it."
In the early 1960s, his father earned his doctorate in history and moved the family to Wisconsin, where he taught for the next quarter century, using summers to explore ghost towns near the family ranch. Parker still visits the ranch each year.
Completing his studies in fine arts, Parker spent the next three decades in the advertising business, first in Chicago and later in the Detroit area, moving to Rochester in the 1980s. While he continues to do some commercial work on the side, most of his time is now dedicated to his fine arts photography.
"I had gradually gone from shooting ghost towns and mines to focusing more on rural aspects of the westward expansion. Anywhere I can find any indication of what people did in the 1930s and ‘40s," he said. "I'm fascinated with what happened 70 or 80 years ago."
When not shooting, he shows his work at about 20 art shows each year, hitting about 300 in the past 13 years, including the annual Art and Apples Festival in Rochester, and other major shows across the country. In 2016, Parker published "A Disappearing Agrarian Landscape," a collection of photographs and writings about the small farms across the Great Plains that were replaced by conglomerates owned by large agribusinesses.
"In terms of fine artwork, I've tried to stay along that historical path," he said.
The interest, no doubt, is influenced by his father, Watson Parker, who wrote about abandoned mining towns and legendary locations, such as Deadwood, South Dakota. When HBO producers made their own interpretation of the town on the show "Deadwood," Parker said they added their own embellishments for effect.
"They came out and talked to Dad. He thought they were a bunch of boobs from Hollywood," he said. "The picture they drew of Deadwood was sort of inaccurate. There was a lot of swearing (in the show), and they never really talked like that. He was sort of disgusted."
By getting a better understanding of the places he shoots and the people who helped make them, Parker is able to relay the background of a place in his pictures. It's a skill he learned from his father and Hugh Lambert, a friend of his father's who he worked for after college, and honed in the years since.
"In my third career, I could be helping people to tell their own stories," he said. "There's a lot of talk about cultural communities and sharing ideas."
Outside of his work, Parker can be found building projects. Not surprising for a photographer who has constructed photo frames out of abandoned barn slats and other materials.
"I like to build and make stuff," he said. "When I'm not making photos, I'm making things."
Photo: Laurie Tennent