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Santa Mug

by Ken Abbott

If a house could name its favorite season I am betting it would be winter. Not only is winter the season where houses are at their utilitarian best (who isn’t thankful for the comforts of a warm fire and a window to look out on bitter cold days?), they also host a lot of cooking and baking; and, after all, winter is when the decorations come out and take over windowsills, sideboards, and special niches that sit empty gathering dust during the rest of the year. And it’s party season! The time when rooms are jammed with friends and family singing carols, telling stories, stoking fires and enjoying meeting new and old friends … like the Christmas parties at Hickory Nut Gap Farm.

I faithfully tried photographing holiday festivities at the Big House a few times over the past years. I’d bring my camera and maybe a flash, but mostly the equipment would just stay in my shoulder bag — an excuse for me to be there and bring my family! For instance, the annual kids’ party at the Big House where Santa has been showing up for many seasons now. How fortunate — blessed even — I felt being able to take my kids to the Big House to see Santa instead of waiting with them in a long line at the mall! Or the Christmas parties complete with carols around the piano in the mural room — sung from a book of lyrics printed, I think, using a mimeograph copier, which means they’d have to have been in use for at least 50 seasons.

I have a few good pictures from those parties, but for me the best pictures and picture-making times happened when the house was much quieter, sometimes just me and maybe Grace there, and Clarence passing through occasionally doing chores. People remark that there is a  “still life” quality to the photographs I made inside the Big House for the Useful Work project, and I have to admit that though I’m an admirer of portraiture and am happy with many of my portraits and landscapes at Hickory Nut Gap, for me the pictures that resonate most deeply are those quieter scenes.

You might wonder how a picture of a kitchen counter full of lunch items, including a prominently positioned jar of Duke’s Mayonnaise, could “resonate” more deeply than pretty much any portrait of any person. And you’d have a point. But they do seem to hold up — and that’s the magic of photography, for me.

The viewfinder frame of the camera is, as the late John Szarkowski, former curator of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, once said, primarily a kind of editing tool. The camera frame by nature includes some things and excludes others. Some objects sit close to the edge and find prominence in that tension, other items might sit right smack in the middle. Colors bring some things forward, others recede; textures soften and model the light; some items are in focus and thus emphasized, while others not within the “depth of field” zone are fuzzy and more generalized. Mostly we don’t think of photographs as being made up of such abstractions as these, but they are.

The photograph below, of the Santa coffee mug in the kitchen cabinet in the Big House, is, for a still life, pretty straightforward. The Santa figure is old-fashioned-looking and the view through the old cabinet glass emphasizes that nostalgia — a sentiment perhaps forgivable at Christmastime, a holiday that, aside from its religious significance, is for many of us deeply nostalgic, as we strain to recapture the magical frosted view of the holidays we remember from childhood.


Happy Holidays to you, and may your houses be warmed by friends and family, the smells of good things cooking, and maybe a hot toddy in an old Santa mug.

Ken Abbott received his MFA in photography from Yale University in 1987, and received a North Carolina Arts Council Fellowship Award for his photography at Hickory Nut Gap Farm in 2006. Reach Ken via