If downtown Asheville seemed desolate this spring, just time-travel back to 1978 and consider the shadowy canyons of College, Haywood, Walnut, and nearby streets. Boutiques and restaurants were alien concepts (though Malaprop’s Bookstore lurked just a few years in the future, waiting to establish a cultural corridor) and the population was an aging one — hardly the surge of craft-beer quaffers and bridal parties that would one day throng the sidewalks.
In a spellbinding series of black-and-white photos, local photographer Ralph Burns, long venerated for his documentary style, shows what the city and adjacent areas looked like from the mid-70s to 1999, the edge of the new millennium and the cusp of the city’s explosion as a cultural destination. In one shot, an older man in a fedora sits on a sunny bench in Pritchard Park and glances cynically at the camera, offering no foretaste of drum circles to come.
Or consider Tent Revival #1, taken in rural Naples, NC, in Henderson County. A young boy stares up at a scene of cinematic apocalypse painted on the side of a traveling tent-revival truck. His innocent fascination and spiffy dress indicate a much earlier time, but in fact it was 1992, the year grunge hit the mainstream.
Taken whole, Burns’ photos are a testament to a region that was monumentally transformed in a few scant decades. But it’s no nostalgia show. The images simmer with a certain foreboding, suggesting that change is here again, but not supplying any comforting outcomes.
Ralph Burns, A Time Before:
Asheville and Beyond
Blue Spiral 1 Gallery
38 Biltmore Ave.
Through Aug. 28