LuAnne DeMeo spent her life visiting the mountains surrounding her hometown of Knoxville, Tennesee. So after the devastating wildfires last November in Gatlinburg, she knew she’d need to go see the place for herself. She made the drive down on December 26, 2016, with a friend, and she documented the visit the best way she knows how: through fine art photography.
We talked with DeMeo about the emotions of going home again, what she found when she got there, and how she saw beauty in tragedy.
CM: What inspired this trip?
LD: I had to go see my special place. And make sure it was OK.
CM: What were your first impressions?
LD: As soon as we got into Gatlinburg, I noticed some burn marks right at the edge. The first destroyed property I saw was way up on a hill. I knew I had to get up there. There were only fireplaces left at a lot of properties, which was scary to me. You know these are beautiful homes, but burnt to the ground they seem like shacks. Something that caught my attention was a foundation and burnt appliances, stoves, washers, and dryers; those were the only things left.
CM: Did you see many people?
LD: No people, actually. It was like a ghost town. You’d see lots of dump trucks and excavating crews, but I never saw any workers.
CM: Did you go there with a specific goal in mind?
LD: My main goal when I was there was to find beauty in destruction, knowing that things would be rebuilt. Even though I saw no one, just knowing that this community that I worked in for so long doing Little League pictures and weddings and getting to know locals and friends, no one’s going to keep them down.
I’m not sure if I succeeded at that but I’m glad that I got to document the process. I want people to look back and remember and think about the fact that they survived, they pulled through.
CM: As an artist, how do you take beautiful photos of a disaster?
LD: Given the tragedy that it was, first you sort of have to absorb the emotion of the thing. Then you look for the beauty in it, which is usually looking for line, shape, and form. Those are the basics of design. I wanted to show my love for a special place. And the only gift I knew to give was my imagery.