This is a tough post to figure out because I want to properly pay homage to the person about whom I’m writing. Every once in a while you meet someone doing something uniquely creative that blows your mind a little bit and challenges you to reexamine the world around you. That person can influence your own creative endeavors in ways you didn’t imagine possible; you can look at something familiar, something you’ve seen a thousand times and thought you’ve already figured it out, and realize you’re looking at it in a completely different way than they are. Their signature perspective suddenly starts materializing through your own eyes and you’re hit with the realization that beauty has many faces, not just the one you’re predisposed to see. They transport you to an alternate reality within the exact space you occupied this entire time and the world you thought you explored becomes abruptly immense and full of new adventures. They push the proverbial head of the fireplace bust backward to reveal a switch that spins and places you on the opposite side of the wall you never dreamed separated you from the rest of the hidden castle. Their secret passage forever alters the adventure you chased up until that moment and you’re eternally grateful for the opportunity to see anew. This person is the Sherpa who leads you through your journey to the top of the mountain to see the world below from a height unseen by the majority of humanity.
I’ve found my Sherpa.
The social networking platform Instagram introduced me to Emily Whitmore (@Emilyseeks) not quite a year ago. I noticed her photography because she wasn’t doing what many others I followed were; she would find a house in a variable condition and photograph it head-on in a matter-of-fact way that I’d rarely seen before. Her style spoke volumes to me because of how plainly full of love it was. Every photo softly declared, “This deserves your attention. It is here, it is beautiful, and it is worthy of our affection.” She found gorgeous homes in which people currently lived but had been built long before any of us were born. She found dilapidated homes which had long since seen their last tenants move out, their corridors and parlors now inhabited only by ivy and mice. She found weathered but livable homes which were architecturally stunning in some precise way that I’d never seen until she posted them. She scoured the area outside of the urban core for things the rest of us hadn’t noticed or weren’t around to love ourselves. It was her mission to point out the underdogs who were doing the aesthetic heavy lifting within the areas many people weren’t paying attention. To say I’ve never clicked the “follow” button fast enough on anyone’s profile would be a gross understatement.
Her photography started evolving over time. She was better at what she shot with every new week; noticeable strides in framing and composition were made and she began finding ways to edit the photos to better reflect her signature style. She avoids harsh black tones in many of her photos which make her shadows seemingly always gentle with an air of unexplainable nostalgia. They have this haunting, magical quality that pinpoints the heart in your chest and goes after it in a weirdly aggressive yet careful manner. You always feel something after you see what she has done because you can tell she spent so much time figuring out why the image she’s presenting to us matters. The deliberateness of each picture isn’t unintentional; they’re tailored to make you feel something different every single time you gaze upon them. She shares them so we can see what she sees so we can feel something too. You can see her finding her voice while developing her style with every post. Eventually she ventured beyond just house photography and pointed her lens toward pieces of urban scenes in various states of decay: a rusted vehicle in Knoxville, an old pump station façade, an upside down “no outlet” sign on a rough sidewalk, an alley here, a ghost sign there, bricks covered in vines and close-ups of graffitied boxcars. Each shot espoused an unusually powerful underlying message about the passage of time and the effects it has therein while shining a spotlight on the natural beauty underneath the grime trying to cover it. Her pictures underscored in bright red ink the splendor hiding within each of her enduring subjects. An old thing, once shiny and new, eroded by years of neglect and wear and presented in such a thoughtful, loving way was, and still is, her expertise. Emily is the champion of the abandoned, the seeker of those unsought, the one who loves the spilled guts of a building because she can see more of what makes them who they are. She photographs these scenes in life as they are because, to her, these scenes are something to be noticed and remembered. The affectionate integrity in her art is unparalleled.
Every photo is a reflection of her in some way, but there are some that directly address who she is as a person. I’m not talking about the few self-portraits she has posted. One photo in particular stood out to me when she shared it a while ago; it’s a picture, out of focus, of Race Street in front of Taft’s Ale House. Blurry streetcar tracks descend into the horizon where a car is stopped in the road at a red light. The image is dark with little pinpoints of hazy light here and there to dot the area and act as beacons in the blackness. It’s such a radical departure from her normal style and it screams “help me.” The tracks are fixed to a single path and she’s unable to change trajectory. They’re conspicuously illuminated in the darkness which ascribes a melancholy mood and “irreversible” feeling to the image. The red lights, symbolic of wanting to stop, remind us there’s so much more to her story in this moment that she’s not directly saying. The lack of clarity throughout the whole photo makes the blackness even scarier. She’s on a single path, hurtling through a dark, lonely world she cannot choose to navigate. This image represents a woman in peril and it’s even more poignant when you see the images she shared around it.
Her evolution continued and she also started taking photos of nature in addition to her city scenes, posting lovely collections of flowers and other pieces of organic life within her same signature style. But I think the thing that differentiates Emily from everyone else besides the obvious stylistic approaches are her #EmilyseeksSunday posts (gallery below). She takes her nature photos or mural photos and places them into her architecture photos by replacing the sky or immediate area with them to create a unique scene of a beautiful old building surrounded by the natural beauty of our world and posts them on Sunday. She has done this many times and her hashtag is filled with splendid examples of her edits. They’re mashups of the way she sees the world and, as a fan of her photography, they’re a breath of fresh air to behold. When I’m scrolling through picture after picture of similar sunsets and similar buildings in similar settings, to see her City Hall picture in front of a bed of violet flowers is like taking a drink of fresh water from a well in the middle of the desert. It’s original yet familiar but also brilliantly and tastefully outlandish. The confluence of her artistic eye, her distinctive perspective, and her imagination is the epitome of perfection, in my opinion.
Not only is she incredibly good at immortalizing pieces of the city and making us feel something with every photo, she’ll also educate her audience about local history. She’s a Samuel Hannaford fan and will post pictures of his creations and pages from his personal journal with text about what it is and why it matters. She’ll remind you of the E.F. Albee theater that once stood on 5th Street, she’ll give you reason to research the Crosley mansion, and you’ll want to look up different murals located on the sides of buildings around town because of a photo she shared. Her pictures are the main reason to follow her, and the additional information she provides broadens your mind. She’s not just posting pictures of things without some sort of insightful quote, fact, or joke about the image; she puts effort into her words as well as her vision. There aren’t many other accounts that take the time to illustrate and educate like hers and her art isn’t where her greatness stops, either. She’s a positive person who continuously supports others to do their thing. Personally, she has influenced and inspired me to be better at my own creative endeavors through continuous feedback and taught me a great deal about my city. Whenever I’m feeling poorly about my own stuff, her kind words help expedite the passing of those negative feelings. Emily doesn’t just love the abandoned underdogs lining our streets; she cares about her contemporaries equally as much. We would all do well to emulate that same level of creativity and empathy because so few of us actually do.
Emily is someone worth knowing and her art is incredible. To raise awareness about her is my distinct pleasure because she has brought so many positive hours into my own life by both being a phenomenal role model as well as a fantastic friend. Every once in a while you meet someone doing something uniquely creative that blows your mind a little bit and challenges you to reexamine the world around you. This person is the Sherpa who leads you through your journey to the top of the mountain to see the world below from a height unseen by the majority of humanity. Emilyseeks is my Sherpa.