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In my time I've photographed thousands of people at work.  Factories, offices, coal mines, farms, hospitals, colleges, churches, schools, you name it.  You could call it documentary photography because these photographs, as they age, become treasures that show how dad or grandma or Uncle Charles made a living.  A few of these images elevate to the level of “Art Photography” and the very, very best of them become “Collector Photography.”

I've never photographed a movie star except for one time in Atlanta when I did shoot a roll of Jimmy Stewart making a speech to bunch of Chamber of Commerce folks.  My preference is for good, down-to-earth working people.  And so, one morning awhile back I found myself prowling a small-town cotton mill.

I have no idea what else I photographed that day but there’s one image that touches my heart every time I see it.  I don’t remember the lady’s name so I call her, very respectfully, my “Cotton-Mill Venus.”

Mind you, my Venus didn't know I was coming to the mill.  She didn't dress up and fix her hair in anticipation of being photographed.  But there she is — perfect.  Her snow-white, sheer blouse looks like something she would wear to church.  Despite the heat and humidity that necessarily characterize cotton mills, her every strand of hair is in place.  And that body language: with the easy grace of a ballet dancer, she stretches a thread away from its bobbin.

To me, the Venus image is a statement about the nobility of workers who process the fibers that clothe our bodies, those who climb poles to repair lines after a winter storm, coal miners, police officers, ditch diggers, truck drivers, construction laborers.  It has been my great joy to photograph them all.  And it pleases me that a number of those images rest in archival collections including the Library of Congress and the North Carolina Collection at the University of North Carolina. 

Billy Barnes

Billy E. Barnes is one of America's most widely published photographers. 

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