Tony Tallent was taken by surprise and moved after seeing a photograph of his late grandmother, Carrie Wiggins, that he had taken 30 years ago when he was a student at Swain County High School. The photo showed up on his cellphone screen one night last month when he was scrolling through his Facebook feed.
“It was somewhat dreamlike, really. I was heading to Philadelphia, and I looked at my screen, and here was a photo of my grandmother looking back at me. That moment was completely unexpected,” he said.
He took a lot of photographs of his grandmother over the years, and when he saw that photo; he pulled out boxes of photographs of her. He still has rolls and boxes of photos.
Joe Holt had recently developed the film that had been hiding in film canisters in the high school art closet since the 1980s. He emailed Tallent a link to the other photos he developed, and Tallent, who had taken all of them, said it was “like taking a step back in time over 30 years.”
Tallent became interested in photography in his early teens, but said it was when he took photography class, at 16, with then Swain High teacher Dan Forrester; he developed it into a craft.
“I just went wild with it. I started mounting my own shoots of the world around me, and I kept them all. I was fascinated to capture it,” Tallent said. “Having that darkroom experience, and seeing things come to life that you could control to a certain degree, it was really a rich time in my life.”
Tallent carried the borrowed Pentax camera around with him for years. Some of the photos that Holt recently developed were from a visit he took to Savannah School of Art and Design, where he was accepted, but instead chose to attend Western Carolina University.
A woman from another time
Of everything Tallent was photographing as a teenager in the 1980s, his grandmother Carrie stands out. The two were extremely close and remained so throughout Tallent’s life.
“My parents brought me home from the hospital and put me on her sofa, from then on, I saw her almost every day of my life,” he said.
The family lived in a cove off of Fontana Road in Bryson City. His grandmother still kept the land and almost never left the property.
“In the summer, when she would work the fields they’d put me out in the shade, and I’d play with rocks,” Tallent recalls. “It was a different world.”
Carrie Wiggins was a remarkable woman even for the time she lived. As Tallent understands, she was born on land that is now in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. She married young, at around 15 years old, raised 10 children and they lived mostly off the land.
“She was really good at keeping acres of land that she and my grandfather and children would care for. She never drove a car, and she didn’t had electricity in her house until my mother was 16 years old,” Tallent said. “My parents put the first cold water spicket in the house after they got married. She was clearly comfortable living in a lifestyle resembling decades before.”
In the photographs developed by Holt after the recently discovered film, Tallent follows his grandmother on the farm as she feeds the chickens.
“Well into her 90s, she was still doing as much as she could outdoors, tending to the gardens, canning food, and she lived to be about 103 years old,” Tallent said. “She had a really storied life. She preserved almost all the food we ate and cooked everything on a woodstove until the early 1990s.”
Tallent said seeing the recently developed photographs he took as a youth brought back a flood of memories.
“I was observing all of this growing up and observing a way of life that was disappearing, but I didn’t know it at the time,” he said. “I was so honored to be a part of her life and that she was a part of mine.”
His close relationship with is grandmother shaped much of his creative work and career choices.
He passed up the opportunity to go to SCAD, he said, because at 17 he couldn’t imagine leaving his grandmother. He instead attended Western Carolina University and got his degree in English and then taught in Swain County for a couple of years.
His grandmother’s life was also an inspiration for Tallent as a writer. In college, he wrote a play titled “Ramble Mountain” based on the stories of her life.
Using stories he started writing in his early teens, he developed a play that later became a traveling show and a two-act musical performed all across Western Carolina and was even staged in Chicago.
“I didn’t have the words for it when I was young, but she was both an inspiration and muse,” Tallent said of his grandmother. “I saw in her a real will that even as a young person I could recognize and I somewhat I wanted to cling to that, hold onto it and capture that.”
A recording of the play was even sold. He said the play provided an opportunity to express his love and gratitude for his grandmother and his interest in the fading way of life she was still living.
Miraculously, she came to town for the closing night of “Ramble Mountain” when it was staged at Smoky Mountain Community Theatre.
“It was a wonderful moment,” Tallent said.
The success Tallent had with the play shaped the course of his life.
“Through that process, I realized you could do something creatively with your life and I could have a creative job,” he shares.
Tallent later attended film school and then earned a Master’s in library information studies. Living in Charlotte now, Tallent continues to write, and said he has a suitcase of cameras at home.
He noted the interesting play between the analog world of the past and the digital, and said one of the last photographs he took of his grandmother was on a visit when she was more than 100 years old and he lent her his iPhone, and he took pictures of her playing on the then-popular Koi pond app.
Tallent and Holt have plans to meet up in the near future and visit the old homestead where Tallent’s mother still lives.
“I’m so grateful for the interest and that Joe was able to find these and had the interest to track it down and that it all came together, and that my friend saw this photograph floating around out there,” Tallent said.