In 1995 I read about the tent city of Ocean Grove in the local newspaper. I thought the tents sounded intriguing. I was looking for a new project and went to Ocean Grove with my cameras and color film that summer. People who see the tents at Ocean Grove often exclaim that they feel transported to another time and of course I also experienced this. I spent a lot of time there that first day, and returned many times afterwards. It was at Ocean Grove that I learned some of the history of Methodist Camp Meetings, and when I discovered there were other places where Camp Meeting took place in North America, I knew it was to become my next documentary photographic project, one that turned into a five-year odyssey that included a lot of research and travel.
In my research, I found a book on camp meeting called Holy Ground, by Kenneth Brown. Because of Ken’s book and his extensive knowledge of Camp Meeting I was able to plan out my project. I made a target list of camps that had been continually operating for more than 100 years. Historically significant camps and camp architecture also factored in. Because of the close proximity of some camps, I often visited camps that were not on my list, but made photographs or just snapshots of them anyway. Sadly, Ken passed away suddenly in 2009. I regret he was never able to see me finish my book or write the introduction for me—his passing was a terrible loss to scholars of American Methodist and church history.
Finding camps proved challenging at times. Even with directions some camps were very difficult to locate. Here is a typical entry for directions to a camp in New Mexico: “Between Magdalena and Datil-on the way to the VLA radio telescopes, by the dry lake beds.” Or this one “Make a left at the red barn, go a few miles, and if you pass the graveyard you have gone too far.” Of course they never mentioned there was more than one graveyard, or two red barns.
Now of course Google Earth and Google Maps can show clear aerial and street views of most of the camps. I wish I had that resource back then!
Everyone I encountered on these camp meeting journeys was helpful and kind. I felt welcome wherever I was and my work was regarded as important. I now have a photographic portfolio and a record of American social culture.
eBAY was already up and running back then, and I collected more than 50 books, plus posters, engravings, photos, postcards and other ephemera related to camp meetings. I also bought any books or recordings that local camps published, an excellent source of camp histories. My small collection will eventually be gifted to the Methodist Library Archives at Drew University.
I encourage you to look around the website and I look forward to hearing from you! Thanks for letting me share part of my photographic project with you.