The Places You Can Go When There’s No Horizon

On site and on top of the story: Neil Jacobs
Portrait by Lauren Rutten

“I wanted to write, but writing is painful,” observes Neil Jacobs, who is making his first appearance at the Beaverdam Studio Tour this month. “I learned that I could use my camera for the same purpose.”

In pursuit of that end, he enrolled half a century ago at the San Francisco Art Institute, where instructor John Collier, Jr., a WPA photographer during the 1930s, made a lasting impression on him. “His definition of an artist has always stayed with me,” states Jacobs: “‘An artist is someone with a unique view of the world [who] can effectively communicate it.’”

Asheville Mardi Gras Parade Steampunk

He continues: “[Collier] made us realize that when documenting life, we need to see it a certain way. … The subject becomes us.” He points out that many of those who graduated with him in 1973 are still working photographers, art stars like Annie Leibovitz among them.

After graduation, Jacobs moved to Sausalito, where the local 7-Eleven store became convenient in more ways than one: Since it was open 24 hours, Jacobs began photographing all the people who passed through. “Most were locals that I got to know, but an occasional interesting tourist came in.” The experience landed him his first national recognition, when a special edition of LIFE magazine and Popular Photography published many of his images.

Robert Kennedy campaigns for President, Ventura, CA, May 30, 1968

He then spent more than 20 years working as a newspaper staff photographer and as a stringer for Associated Press and The Los Angeles Times. During this time, he covered the effects of WWII uranium mining on the Navajo Nation. “That was my story — I made the contacts and did the research. The reporter wrote to fit the images. It won a state journalism award.”

John Coltrane, 1967

From there, his career path took him to Hollywood, where he worked as a unit still photographer from the mid-1990s until he and his wife (a hair stylist for film) moved to Asheville in 2017. “About 15 years ago, I visited her on a film she was doing in Columbia, South Carolina,” he remembers. They seized the opportunity to explore the area and became enamored with Asheville.

“We heard it was creative and conducive to our lifestyle and philosophies. … This area is a lot like Northern California in many ways. We knew we couldn’t afford to retire in California, but Asheville was perfect.” He describes WNC as an “upgraded 1960s and 1970s environment … [a combination of] San Francisco, Berkeley, and Marin County, [but] with biscuits, tacos, and beer.”

Hollywood Heat A homeless woman seeks relief from 100 degree temperatures in front of the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.

Jacobs quickly set about photographing what he saw here, capturing images that would convey his impression of the area. He says this series of photos makes no definitive statement about Asheville — it’s simply for fun.

 “This is an ongoing project … I expect it will evolve as my relationship and view of the community evolve. It’s a personal journey.”

“The best thing about retirement is there is less need to look for the horizon … just do what you do with no expectations.”

Neil Jacobs, North Asheville. The 4th Annual Beaverdam Studio Tour happens Saturday, Oct. 30, 10am-5pm, and Sunday, Oct. 31, 12-5pm. For a tour map with studio addresses and more information, visit beaverdamstudiotour.com. Jacobs’ photographs are exhibited locally at Avenue M Restaurant (791 Merrimon Ave.). For more information about the artist, see neiljacobsphotographer.com. 

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