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Behind the lens: Turlington finds art in industry

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Images from Sylva-based photographer Matthew Turlington’s 1998 work “A Photographic Depiction of Jackson Paper Company” stand out on the company’s corporate office walls, lining the hallway with their stark black and white freeze frames of work in the mill.


The pictures are a series of portraits of the mill’s workers and of its machinery. They provide a glimpse into one of the last bastions of Jackson County’s industrial past.

Turlington’s idea to photograph the mill came from his personal background in a blue-collar environment. He has worked in factories and spent time as a laborer in blueberry and tomato fields. While in high school he bagged groceries and delivered packages.

He approached Jackson Paper’s vice president Jeffrey Murphy about the project, obtaining permission to photograph the mill inside and out. In attempting to portray the mill’s daily routine, Turlington’s goal was to become an unobtrusive part of the landscape.

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“I don’t go in with a plan. My plan is just to exist in there,” Turlington said of his technique.

Over the course of the next 10 months, Turlington spent both daylight and nighttime hours in the mill, photographing and building a rapport with the mill’s workers. He utilized the mill’s bulletin board system where workers’ schedules were posted to also post early images from the project and his personal statements about what he was doing and his feelings about each picture.

“It was important to me that they knew where I was coming from,” Turlington said.

Displaying the images helped workers see what Turlington was going for — them just being themselves. And it helped the workers develop a photographer’s eye. One day on the line two workers standing on top of the papermaking machine began waving to Turlington over the din. It was too loud to talk, so they simply pointed down into the machine where a member of the maintenance crew was perfectly framed in one of the enormous cogs.

“They just knew it was a shot,” Turlington said.

In the end, Turlington ended up with approximately 800 images. Then a student at Western Carolina University, he took the photos to critique sessions and used input gathered there to choose his final 16 images.

“All of a sudden something begins to come out of it, a visual language,” Turlington said.

Although the work is nine years old, Turlington says it isn’t finished.

“I may go through and add more later,” he said.

He would have liked to incorporate more about workers’ personal lives outside the mill. He had a trip scheduled with a worker who races cars in his spare time, but there came a point when Turlington simply had to draw a line on the amount of time he was able to spend on the project.

Now, as a professional photographer and gallery owner, teacher and Web designer, Turlington has to work even harder to balance his time.

“I’m not able to be the professional artist I want to be yet because I wear too many hats,” he said.

Currently he has three photography projects under way including the downtown Sylva collection, which features images of the historic courthouse and will always continue to grow, he says.

Images from Turlington’s “A Photographic Depiction of Jackson Paper Company” are on display at his gallery located downtown at 528 West Main Street in Sylva and online at

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