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Monday, May 18, 2015

Local NKU Assistant Professor Photographs Every U.S. Presidents' Birthplace

Matthew Albritton, photographer
Fort Thomas resident Matthew Albritton, assistant professor at Northern Kentucky University, has long had a passion for photography. In addition to teaching the subject, he's an avid photographer at home. (Need family portraits or a wedding photographer? Check out his services here.) His vocation and avocations often intersect. He loves biking and makes it a point to bike whenever possible, including transporting his three daughters in his Madsen and riding three miles to work—no matter the weather—each way.

Recently this crossing of work and play has resulted in the culmination of a project nine years in the making—Albritton has photographed every birthplace of every U.S. President. Here we talk with him about the project, his plans for the images, and the importance of history and one's childhood home.

a map of every U.S. Presidents' birthplace; photo by Matthew Albritton

What inspired the Presidents Project and how long have you been working on it? "I happened upon the birthplace of Ulysses S. Grant by accident running some errands one day. The original house still stands on its original site, and it struck me that right here in this humble little home on this very place along the Ohio river is where little Ulysses was raised. This is the very place where the life trajectory of one of the great shapers of America began. I was inspired by the sense of history and the sense of connection to this great historical figure. There was also something about the American Dream that was tangible at this site—the sense that even from humble beginnings, you can do anything or be anything. I returned to the site a couple of months later with my camera, and the project was born! That was nine years ago! It started slowly and gathered steam in the last several years, culminating with a visit to Truman’s birthplace in March that finally completed all of the presidents."   

Farm, Jefferson Birthplace, Shadewell, VA; photo by Matthew Albritton 

You've visited 43 presidents' childhood homes, correct? How many separate trips did this require? "Yes, I have been to the birthplaces of all 43 presidents (while Obama is President No. 44, Cleveland was president twice, non-consecutively, so Cleveland is No. 22 and No. 24). I’ve also been to several childhood homes as well as the birthplace of CSA President Jefferson Davis. It has taken a lot of trips! With some excursions, such as to the Boston area, I could visit and photograph multiple sites. Others, such as Nixon in California or Obama in Hawaii, required separate trips. Some have been solo, some with my wife and kids on family trips, and several have been with my collaborator on the project, Dr. Andrew Leiter, an old high school friend who is now an English professor. Andy is the writer on the project."

Shower, Carter Childhood Home, Plains, GA; photo by Matthew Albritton

Out of all the homes you visited, which was most memorable and why?  "It is difficult to pin one down as being the most memorable—each site is unique in its own way just as each president is unique as is their particular impact on American history. That being said, I respond to the sites that still have the original structures intact. With every president before Jimmy Carter (first president born in a hospital!), the birthplace home is actually where they were born. I find it compelling to actually stand in the same room where Ronald Reagan or Herbert Hoover or Woodrow Wilson was born. A few homes that do stand out are Nixon’s whose father mail-ordered the house; Hoover's because it is absolutely tiny—14x20 feet for the entire family of five; Both Adams’ because they are about 30 feet from one another, and of course Obama's simply because it is in Hawaii!"   

Slave Graveyard, Madison Home, Orange, VA; photo by Matthew Albritton

In a review in ÆQAI of your exhibition, "Ohio to the White House," featuring the birth sites of all seven Ohio presidents at Taft Museum of Art, Karen Chambers writes: "Albritton has photographed these homes, focusing on unassuming details that often go unnoticed. He’s clearly operating in the mode of the Farm Security Administration photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans as he records reality as faithfully as possible. But like those predecessors, Albritton also manages to evoke an emotional response from the viewer." What do your images of "unassuming details" tell us about our past presidents' childhoods? Why do you feel they are important to document?  "The little details that I like to photograph—light cast across old wood floors, the texture of original siding, or the profile of a chimney against the sky—in addition to being visually interesting, are tangible links to the past. I look for small details that may have been present at the time when the president lived in the home. Beyond that, I am always interested in making images that speak to the passage and preciousness of time. As for the importance of this project—photographs of all of these birth sites speaks to the persistence of the American dream and serve as a historical record of 280 years of our country through architecture, land, and politics. In some cases, I also hope to point to issues that bear contemplation. One of my favorite images from the project is of the slave graveyard at Madison's home. The image is of a tree and its dark shadow dividing the frame, symbolizing the divisions that nearly ripped apart the union and still plague us today."

Hearth, Grant Boyhood Home, Georgetown, OH; photo by Matthew Albritton

What role do you believe a birthplace or childhood home plays in a person's life? "The combination of place and family forms the very core of who we are. This is the unique part of this project. Lots has been researched and written about these presidents' administrations, polls, elections, and policies. We are exploring what formed these men—what made them who they are from the very beginning."

What has been the most challenging part of the project? Most enjoyable? "The most challenging part has been time. I teach full time at NKU and I've had three kids since beginning the project making it increasingly difficult to make the time to shoot and edit the images. Without all the help and support from my remarkable wife, Jana, this project simply could not have gotten done. She was there to keep the kids while I traveled across the country photographing a bunch of old houses and on trips to photograph with the whole family, was there to keep them entertained while Daddy needed 'just one more shot'!  The project has definitely been a family effort! The most enjoyable part has been learning more about the political history of America. As Mark Twain said, 'History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.' There isn't much new in modern politics that hasn't happened before!"

Chimney, Lincoln Birthplace, Hodgenville, KY; photo by Matthew Albritton

This will eventually be a book-length project, with text written by Dr. Andrew Leiter, associate professor of English at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa., correct? Tell me about that. 
"As I mentioned, Andy is a longtime friend who is writing the text for the project. We envision a large book with my photographs along with his text. We are currently in editing mode and hope to have half of the book put together by the end of the summer so that we can approach publishers."

As a professor of photography and a professional photographer, how has the art of taking images impacted your life? "Making pictures has always been about connection for me. Photography connects me to the moment and to my experiences. Making pictures is also, as with this project, a great way to keep learning about the world and about yourself."

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