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Loudoun County’s struggle to maintain its rich natural environment in the wake of the fastest urban development in the nation is illustrated in a photo essay by regional photographer Jim Hanna. This essay/exhibit—titled Rural Culture on the Edge—originally contained 23 images. Here and on the following pages are 11 selections. All the images, separately and together, create a palpable tension between stunning rural landscapes and the advancing wave of urban development. Hundreds of thousands of acres of open space and farmland have disappeared from Loudoun County’s landscape in the last decade despite the efforts of citizens and organizations to sustain their rural heritage, culture, and small-town environment through historic preservation and restoration, ecological stewardship, and nurturing of the vibrant rural economy.
The good news is that still more acreage was not forever lost.
In addition to this exhibit, Jim Hanna’s photographs have been recognized in a number of juried shows, including the Waterford Art Fair, the Four Seasons of Oatlands Art Show, and the Loudoun County Landmarks Exhibit. Photography is, and has always been his passion, and after retiring from The World Bank in 2005, he fulfilled a life-long dream by establishing Jim Hanna Photography, LLC.
A resident of western Loudoun County, Jim’s recent focus, as this photo essay makes abundantly clear, is the appreciation of the area’s rural lifestyles and natural beauty as well as the efforts of the local community to maintain its existence. He plans to publish one day the ever-expanding photographic collection of Rural Culture on the Edge in book form.
The struggle to strike a balance between urban development and rich rural culture always makes for a powerful theme. Jim’s images convey even more power because of his objective perspective, not clouded or narrowed by a particular point of view or angle of vision. Sometimes he’ll hire a pilot to get a truly objective, bird’s eye view— and shoot through open window of a Cessna helicopter. Hanna’s power derives from his keen eye for light and dramatic visual relationships. In self-deprecating fashion, Jim gives credit to his compelling subject matter: “You can turn any direction in Loudoun and get a good picture.”
He recalls that his “first deliberate steps beyond snapshots, which I began taking about the time I was old enough to hold a camera, were in the 1970s in New York. I became engrossed with reflecting people in their working environment—surroundings that conveyed and enriched understanding about them. I went on to do more of this as I traveled and worked in Africa and the Middle East.”
Jim’s father is the one who first introduced him to photography. “I am the grateful recipient of his photo archives that chronicled our family life, and particularly his overseas photographic work. What I appreciate most about his photography was his ability to use one of the medium’s strongest features, capturing a split-second moment, and to make portraits that transmitted subtleties of a subject’s character and trust between them.”
When asked to talk about his work, Jim’s words can seem almost as poetic as his images. “Photography often animates me, leads me to new discoveries, to a higher level of sensitivity to our environment, and puts me into a living-for-today appreciation mode.
“In practice, my photography is driven by the moods of light and the motions of life. For I have found that, while on the surface life often seems repetitive, it seldom is. Changes are constant and there seems to be no going back.”
This notion of change is embodied, of course, through what’s happening in Loudoun County. “The development process constantly changes our physical and emotional environment, Jim says. “Photography is one of our tools that can ‘stop the music’ momentarily to help us see where we may be headed.”
Most gratifying, says Jim, are viewers’ reactions to his photos, which he welcomes. “They put another layer of reaction and thought on top of what I saw, frequently finding interpretations more interesting to me than what I myself found! In my work on Loudoun, it has been a great way to begin to know the many facets of its ‘personality,’ and particularly to connect with and appreciate so many wonderful folks in its communities.”
The ‘Edge’ Creeps Further
Update, October, 2017
I drew up my camera in flight on August 1, 2008, to capture an image of lush green fields and meandering creeks etched with beautiful tree lines.
By the time I snapped the shutter at 100+ mph, I recorded a different view—sliced in half with row after row of houses appearing as if placed on a cookie sheet. From a unique perspective high above the ground, I felt I saw nature’s artistic designs posed against a parading army of houses.
This marked a shift in my photographic focus in Loudoun County from a visual appreciation of its ecological and historical beauty to the harder “edge”—the process of the progressive dissolution of farms, habitat, and land in the west and their displacement with power lines, roads, and quick-hit developer housing. Or, fundamentally, the struggle to balance the positive strengths of the east bringing its high-tech, highly skilled economic growth—the highest rate in the U.S.—with the ageless and stunning ecology, heritage, and view sheds of the west.
Today, nine years later, all of the trees below the road seen in the upper part of the photograph have been cut down and the terrain of fields re-graded by bulldozers into parcels readied for a new round of cookie-cutter homes produced by developers.
This development is emboldened by an underlying strategy for Loudoun County framed in its recent “Envision” planning process, which emphasizes that in the substantial absence of land for new housing developments in the east, a revised policy is needed in the County’s transition and rural areas to enable higher residential density in the west.
Without strong, enlightened, and vociferous efforts to maintain the beautiful balance between Loudoun’s eastern and western cultures, it seems that the “Edge”will keep moving westward.
— Jim Hanna