BY JIM WISE, STAFF WRITER
Photographer John Zager lived in Durham only two years, but he has left the city a legacy.The legacy is “Durham In Changing Light,” a book of photographs that depict Durham literally in changing light – daytime, nighttime and in between – and metaphorically, as a place that, as Zager writes in a back-cover note, is “redefining how to build a prosperous city.”Zager debuted his book last weekend, at a standing-room talk at the Regulator Book Shop and an exhibition opening at Through This Lens Gallery.”I only hope that I do the city justice,” he said.The book begins with a daylit wide-angle cover shot looking down at the American Tobacco campus with the downtown skyline in the background, and closes with a wide-angle sunset view of downtown from the Chapel Hill Street parking garage.
In between, Zager moves from the 18th-century St. Mary’s Church cemetery near the pre-colonial Trading Path through historic sites and inner-city neighborhoods, mixing historical texts with images reflecting a newcomer’s impression of Durham in the present day.
“I really wanted to capture the whole city,” Zager said.
Among his captures:
The Little River, illuminated by distant city lights beneath a starry night sky;
Bright stalks of rhubarb at the Farmers’ Market;
A serene pool backed by fall-colored trees in Duke Gardens;
Night-lit streets in East Durham;
Fans watching a baseball game from a grassy bank at Durham Athletic Park.
“The scenes are all familiar, but he casts them in a new light,” said Old West Durham resident John Schelp. “The beauty is magical.”
A native of Duluth, Minn., Zager took up landscape photography along the Lake Superior shore and in the wilds of northern Minnesota, and then pursued it in the Pacific Northwest after moving to Tacoma, Wash. He came to Durham in 2008, when his wife entered graduate school at Duke University, and one morning found his eye drawn in a new direction.
Driving past Erwin Mill, he was struck by the sight of blooming dogwoods against an old industrial building.
“I fell in love … with the contrast,” he said. “I took a picture.”
Zager was visually fascinated by the old mill, and then intrigued by its history. That drew him into studying the Old West Durham area, and then adjoining neighborhoods and he began making photographs of them day and night, contrasting their moods and the effects of light.
“Almost any Durham resident will find things they have not seen, and new perspectives of things they thought familiar,” said Through This Lens owner Roylee Duvall.
Along with photographing, Zager started educating himself on the neighborhoods’, and the city’s, history.
“There are a lot of people who, like myself, come to Durham and don’t know Durham’s story,” Zager said. “There’s a wealth of information our there, but you have to go looking for it.”
Zager has moved back to the Pacific Northwest, with a diversified portfolio and, if he continues with photography, a successful career ahead, Duvall said.
“Given the work he has put into ‘Durham In Changing Light,’ he has demonstrated not only skill, but perseverance,” Duvall said. “He has a spark that most young photographers lack.”
“Durham In Changing Light” is Zager’s first book, and he said the idea to do it developed as he was encouraged by Durham residents who saw what he was doing.
“His images remind us,” said Schelp, “why we love this town.”