December 22, 2021
THE LUMBER YARD
Photography and words by Leigh Ann Edmonds
Introduction by Karen Ghostlaw Pomarico
We are often in search of what will make us happy in life. We go to far away places, see and try many new and different things, meeting interesting people along the way. All of these experiences help us determine who we are, and where we feel we have a place of belonging. We often make meaningful connections in life that not only surprise us, but allow us to grow and understand things in ways we never expected.
Leigh Ann Edmonds is a woman with many talents pulling her in interesting directions both personally and professionally. Leigh Ann is a successful photographer running her own photography business and getting paid for the kind of photography she was finding little inspiration in. Leigh Ann was frustrated with that type of work and decided to close her photography business and concentrate more on her documentary work, and to go back home to her roots to work in her family's business, a lumber yard in northern Jefferson county, in the state of Alabama. For Leigh Ann, coming home was more rewarding than she ever thought possible. Reconnecting with her family and personally working with the people in her community on a day to day basis, has given Leigh Ann valuable insight and a genuine understanding of the integral role her family business plays in the building of a stronger and better community. Leigh Ann has made lasting meaningful relationships with her family, and rewarding inspiring connections to her community.
These photographs depict Shaw Building Supply, and the family and workers that are building a better place for the people of Jefferson County and surrounding communities to live and work in.
When I decided to join the family business back in 2015, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. For so long, I had not shown an interest with the small family building supply and my knowledge base and skills had been solely in photography for the past fifteen years. My focus was more on the outside world, travels, chasing what life had to offer and always thinking about life outside of my hometown.
I went to school for photography, my first job out of university was in photography, I even started my own photography business back in 2006 where I was a freelance photographer for family portraits and weddings. But all this seemed to have changed overtime as my love of photography faded. My business grew and with that came more demands. My creativity diminished as bookings increased and I felt that I had become a generic portrait photographer, photographing individuals dressed in their Sunday best, smiling pretty for their photographs. I felt that my images lacked depth and purpose and I easily grew bored of this redundancy... so I wanted out. Leaving a successful photography practice to work at the lumber yard seemed to many individuals a step back with my career. But it was the complete opposite. And therefore, I feel life has more purpose now than it did when I was only a photographer.
It all started well before I was ever born when my grandfather moved to Birmingham in the 60s from a small sharecropping town in Pickens County, Alabama. Work was hard to find in the countryside if you wanted to do more than farm. He found work at Hays Aircraft over by the Birmingham airport but was eventually laid off. During this time, my grandfather used this as an opportunity to create a new path for him and all of his family for generations to come.
The family business, SHAW BUILDING SUPPLY, started back in 1974. My grandfather and his two young ons (my dad and uncle) saw a need for this industry up in the northern Jefferson county of Alabama. The city of Mount Olive was growing as many families were moving out of the city and into the neighboring communities. They all had experience with construction and after much thought, they felt the time was right to plant roots in this small town just 12 miles north of the city of Birmingham. So he and all the family moved out of the city and into a small, quaint community that has now been home to the Shaw family for over four generations now and counting.
My grandfather passed away when I was just 11 years old, leaving the company to my dad and with the recent passing of my grandmother just a month ago, I found myself reflecting on their life and legacy that they left behind for their children and their children’s children. And this is when I found that what I am involved in now has much deeper meaning than all the years of me having my own photography company. This family business has given the family a bond of working together, reliance on another and has helped keep us close within the community. Without it, it’s crazy to think how scattered about all our family would probably be.
The lumber yard has saved me in so many ways, not only has it provided a good life for me and all of the family it also helped to keep me working during the lockdown of 2020 with the outbreak of COVID-19. This job was essential whereas if I had only been a photographer, I would have not been able to keep work.
Over the years I have noticed the value in small businesses within a community. It provides not only a service to the locals but also a place for employment who may not always want to commute to the larger cities. In a way, I feel it not only helps bring my family together but the community together as well.
The lumber yard has a lot of character that makes it different than the bigger box stores such as Home Depot and Lowes. The small business has years of charm to it with the old nail bins to the mounted largemouth bass hanging on the wall of my dad’s office and a small coffee station where several of the regulars gather around in the mornings to discuss local happenings and petty gossip. Over the years I have taken note that it is more than just a business but also a gathering place for locals who enjoy their morning cup of coffee that the big box chain stores will never have. There is personality here and I feel that is what is lacking in the big department stores.
The lumberyard is my favorite location to shoot with the business. This is where I find most inspiration with the local lumberyard dog, named TRAMP, to the sounds of forklifts carrying heavy loads of treated pine lumber. The work is hard and over time, I began to take notice how important it is for people to still work with their hands, outside in the extreme heat and humidity through the cold, rainy and wet winter months.
The men in the lumberyard stood out to me in many ways as there were both older and younger generations of workers, not scared of manual labor. I didn’t know many of their names when I started working at the company and felt guilty for not having been more involved. I didn’t want to be known as the ‘owner’s daughter’ who hid away in the office. I wanted to get out and speak with them, let them know that I truly appreciated and noticed their hard work and efforts.
When I first started bringing my camera to work, the employees seemed to run from me and avoid wanting to have their picture taken. It wasn’t until one of the employees saw an image I had printed that they realized these were not the ‘posed’ formal photos that they were used to seeing. So I feel after that, they didn’t run from me anymore.
I didn’t know what I wanted to capture but I did feel inspired through the hard work of the employees, and I found myself wanting to document the lumberyard more often. My favorite time to photograph the employees was first thing in the morning when they would be loading trucks and getting ready for the work day. This was the least busy time and it allowed me to capture the workers in their element without distractions of customers.
I didn’t fully start to focus on the lumberyard series until 2020 when I started to focus on doing some of my own photography projects for me. I had been burnt out of photography for such a long time that I did not have a desire to pick up my camera without it feeling like work.. This time, it felt more like I was shooting for a purpose again.. Not those pretty, dressed up, perfect smiling family photos I had become accustomed to in years' past. This was real life, nothing pretentious and planned. Photographing the lumberyard not only helped inspire me with my photography again but it also allowed me to have a better understanding of the employees and the work that is involved as well as connect me to my family and community that I had been removed from for many years. I also feel that it is a way for others to hopefully find some insight into manual labor and the importance of it.
My job at the family business is in their flooring department. It is a good balance for me as I feel that working in a different industry other than photography has given me more job skills to work with. Working in the flooring department still allows me to book photography sessions, but it also allows me to not feel the need to book every inquire I have. I feel working in this environment has allowed me to find balance with my creativity, with my family and with my work and community.
There are many individuals who I deal with daily that may not ever know that I’m a photographer and then there are many individuals who only know me as a photographer. It’s kind of fun having the ability to wear two hats.