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Music City, 1970s: JD Sloan’s Nashville Photographs Recently Acquired

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The following is a guest post by Micah Messenheimer, Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division.

Who is the woman in this photograph? JD Sloan’s portrait offers an aura of mystery while commenting on both the glamour and the tedium of celebrity culture.

Tammy Wynette, Opryland Auditorium, 1975. Gelatin silver print by JD Sloan.
Tammy Wynette, Opryland Auditorium. Gelatin silver print. © JD Sloan, 1975.

Country singer Tammy Wynette stands on a dark Opryland stage facing away from the camera, her blonde hair gleaming brightly in the spotlight. Surrounding her are a troupe of assistants at the ready with hairspray and makeup. The focus on Wynette’s hair is poignant when we learn she attended cosmetology school prior to achieving her fame and held her license until late in her life.

This photograph is part of a recent gift by the photographer JD Sloan to the Library of Congress of 92 gelatin silver prints that present a humorous and insightful look at the culture and street life of 1970s Nashville. Apropos of its “Music City” moniker, he depicts major country stars like Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, and Buck Owens along with lesser known performers at intimate venues like the Pickin’ Parlor during a period when the genre was in transition from its regional roots toward prominence on the popular music charts.

Sloan is just as likely to turn his lens toward the crowds waiting expectantly for a show to begin or standing in line for an autograph. In these pictures, country stars are only hinted at in the way people look past the camera, angle their heads to catch a glimpse of a performer, or smile in hope of a personal moment with their favorite musician. In this case, perhaps an opportunity for the girl in the foreground to capture a comment about the final Grand Ole Opry show at the Ryman Auditorium on March 15, 1974 on the tape recorder she holds in her arms.

Last Night, Old Opry, 1974. Gelatin silver print by JD Sloan.
Last Night, Old Opry. Gelatin silver print. © JD Sloan, 1974.

Such details are often pivotal in Sloan’s photographs. His portrait of four women sitting in the front row of an outdoor auction perfectly documents the essential experience of waiting—equal parts anticipation and ennui. Yet, looking down, we see all four keeping their feet warm and dry in the cardboard boxes set aside for their winnings. The boxes break the tension of the scene and offer a moment of levity on what appears to be a cold and dreary day.

Nashville, Hilmont Auction. Gelatin silver print. © JD Sloan, 1974.

A highlight of Sloan’s gift is a series of portraits of Nashville residents at work. The people depicted in these photographs represent the myriad occupations found in every city of its size, from construction worker to bus driver, but they also depict less conventional professions that give clues to the local economy, like hog farmers and vendors of velvet paintings. Again, details matter—whether in a simple stack of dishes behind a woman cooking at the Tennessee State Fair or the overwhelming array of keys hanging in a locksmith’s shop. While these are ostensibly portraits, both the people shown and their work environments are seen as intimately connected and afforded equal consideration before the camera.

Cooking in a Trailer – Tn. State Fair, Nashville. Gelatin silver print. © JD Sloan, 1975.
Key Shop, Nashville. Gelatin silver print. © JD Sloan, 1973.

Sloan’s Nashville work was created as part of his Master’s thesis project at the Institute of Design in Chicago. He intended for the photographs to appear in a never-published book documenting the country music industry, titled Nashville in Person.

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