By Jean Clark
We have become so used to color photographs that we often forget how compelling a black and white image can be.
John Blankenship feels that black and white photography lends itself to moods and feelings. It was difficult for him to decide on favorites, and although many of his photographs were for sale at his recent photography show in the Pleasant Hill Community House, there were many that he would not let go. Among them were a sepia print taken 40 years ago of his son, David, when he was three years old; a black and white image of a barn that is so evocative of other East Tennessee barns he has shot; a photograph of his sister; and an enlarged image of a dragonfly on the spines of classical recordings.
For one startling print of four buzzards perched at the very tops of four trees with their wings spread, it took him 30 minutes and two rolls of film to get just the image he desired. His collection is quite eclectic since he captures people and inanimate subjects in very dramatic ways. A few are in color. He enlarged, printed, mounted and framed all of the photographs in the show, but has since given his equipment away.
I purchased a photograph of the Crossville Palace Theatre taken in 1984 before it was renovated. He titled it, “Waiting for Gene Autry.” I also bought a photograph of an oak tree taken in Loudon County that reminds me of my own stately backyard oak.
Blankenship grew up and attended school in Greenback, TN, which is southwest of Maryville. He attended the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, securing bachelor and master's degrees in mechanical engineering. After graduation he worked as a civilian at the Tullahoma wind tunnel for the Air Force. He retired from K-25 in Oak Ridge after working 34 years on uranium enrichment.
Blankenship was very interested in aviation and model airplanes from an early age beginning during World War II. When he had the money, he would buy model airplane kits at the dime store in Maryville, TN, and try to build them, without much success in the beginning. He picked it up again after graduating from UT.
There were several model airplane magazines being published in those days, and he decided to create some model designs for publication. An immediate problem was that he needed black and white photographs of models during construction and of the completed models. A friend suggested that he join the Oak Ridge camera club and use the club's darkroom. He purchased a 35mm camera, and with the help of friends in the camera club, he learned to develop black and white film and make prints.
Blankenship built and published eight model designs from 1971 through 1975 in Flying Models magazine. That hooked him on the precision and dramatic feel of that type of photography.
Eventually, he gave up aero-modeling activities and concentrated on photography. His main interest has been scenic panoramas. Blankenship used several types of cameras and film sizes over the years, including 4x5 cut film, but found that the 35mm single lens reflex (SLR) camera suited him best. He recently bought a Nikon digital SLR and has started roaming Cumberland and White counties with this new camera.
The Oak Ridge camera club holds an annual salon, in which he won several blue ribbons and best of show awards. He also won ribbons in the Tennessee Valley Fair in Knoxville and in the Chattanooga Camera Club annual show. The ultimate prize was having a print stolen from a public exhibit at a mall in Chattanooga (it was a cemetery picture). During the 1980s, he had shows at the Bijou Theater in Knoxville and at the Art Center in Oak Ridge.
In 1999, his dormant interest in model airplanes was revived, and he started building and flying models again. There is an active club in Cumberland County with monthly meetings.They fly their models at Buck Creek Airport in the Linary community.
In addition, Blankenship works with the audiovisual system for the Pleasant Hill Community Church, UCC, and enjoys taking friends on tours of interesting areas around East Tennessee.
The images that Blankenship has captured evoke by-gone eras populated by old general stores, gas stations, municipal buildings, farm houses, barns and the fashions and hair styles that document a particular time in history. If you would like to see Blankenship’s photographs or discuss photography or model airplanes, email him at email@example.com and arrange for a time. You won’t be sorry.