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A photographer’s visual journey across the state

For this unusual shot of Noccalula Falls in Gadsden in Etowah County, Dersham used a three-second exposure on a tripod behind the falls on a foggy fall morning.

John Dersham pays tribute to Alabama in new book for the Bicentennial

By Lenore Vickrey

Imagine paddling up the Cahaba River on a spring afternoon, then walking through one of Alabama’s spectacular waterfalls. Gaze in wonder at the giant sycamores in Pickens County, and admire the native rhododendron ablaze with color in Cherokee County. Stroll down a dusty road in rural DeKalb County, and then kick off your shoes and scamper down the sun-warmed beach at Gulf Shores. 

Those settings and hundreds more are all part of the visual feast prepared by John Dersham and shown off in his new book, My Alabama: John Dersham Photographs a State, published in collaboration with the Alabama Bicentennial Commission. Dersham, who has been photographing sites in Alabama for more than 20 years, had a long career in the photo industry with a Kodak subsidiary, and now is president/CEO of DeKalb Tourism. 

The book is available through bookstores and online or through its Montgomery publisher, NewSouth Books, newsouthbooks.org. He answered a few questions for Alabama Living.

A giant sycamore at the Natural Bridge of Alabama Park in Winston County. There are several photos of similar majestic trees in the book.

How did the idea for the book originate?

I had done quite a bit of photography for Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association, and I began talking to (director) Tami Reist, Jay Lamar (Alabama Bicentennial Commission director), Lee Sentell (Alabama tourism director) and Nisa Miranda (director, Center for Economic Development, University of Alabama). The idea was to show the world what Alabama physically looks like.

My photographic vision is to craft a body of work that is beautiful, expressive and visually impactful. Whether the subject is a landscape, an old building, a still life or a cityscape, I want the viewer to sense the visual excitement that I felt in capturing the image. – John Dersham

We spoke about the fact that in tourism and economic development we are continually speaking with potential out-of-state visitors or business clients who have a total misperception about what Alabama physically looks like. Many think we are a flat state; many do not realize we have mountains (southern Appalachians) or beaches. Almost no one knows we have one of the premier river systems in the world and are the fourth most biodiverse state in the country.

We all agreed there needs to be a photography book that shows the scenery of Alabama that includes all the different regions of the state, and that includes our great variance in topography, flora and fauna, rivers, mountains and farm lands. This book would make a great book for consumers, libraries and for the tourism and economic development industries. Jay Lamar wanted it to be a Bicentennial book and with the support of Lee Sentell and the tourism office, which the Bicentennial Commission is managed under, it became a reality.

How did you come up with the idea to organize it seasonally, rather than by region, or some other way?

We struggled for a while to figure out the best way to lay it out. The publisher at NewSouth Books, Suzanne LaRosa, and editor Randall Williams thought the seasonal approach would work really well, and I totally agreed.

Tell me about the process you went through to narrow down your 50,000 photos to just 200.

I had three groups of three to five people, as did the publisher, to help narrow down the vast number of images to a manageable number, which was still over 1,000 images. The process continued for several months with lots of input, to finally get it down to a manageable 200 or so images. The subject matter became critical. We needed to make sure all the Alabama regions were represented and the subject matter was also diverse.

I have to say, Randall Williams, who edited the book and did the layout, really helped me get past some personal image preferences to favor images that needed to be included and not just be there because I thought it was a great photograph.

A farm near Hamilton in Marion County. While the book features some photos taken in metro areas, most are of rural scenes that capture country life in all four Alabama seasons.

Is there a location you have returned to, more than twice, to shoot again, just because you love the way it looks, or it has special meaning to you?

Since I live near Little River Canyon and I teach photo workshops there for Jacksonville State University, I shoot the canyon on a regular basis. I have also shot at many of our state parks multiple times and have shot in many of the same counties and regions of the state many times over the process of this publication.

How did you get Bo Jackson to write the forward?

Randall Williams arranged it with Bo, based on the fact Bo was doing his annual fundraiser where he rides through Alabama on a bicycle. His text deals with viewing the beautiful scenery in Alabama from a bicycle seat.

Do you still take most of your photos in the wee hours?

I leave the house before daylight and shoot pre-daylight till just before midday. I like late afternoon light also, but morning is my preference since not only can I get the sunrise, but often I will have dew, wet roads, frost, fog and other sparkly image enhancers not available at the end of the day.