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Knoxville's European photographers: John Black


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This is the first of a series of articles on photographers from other countries who are working in Knoxville. 

Meet John Black, originally from Irvine, Scotland, a west coast harbor town where the poet Robert Burns once lived while he worked in a flax mill. Black’s working class family moved when he was still a young boy to Northern Ireland, where his father worked in a pub and his mother worked in a factory.

Black said there was no history of photography in his family. His parents did not own a camera, and he later found only ten pictures in his parents’ house that were taken before he turned 14.

Black went to work in a denim factory when he graduated from school, then floated from job to job, until he became a hotel barman in the popular tourist city of Killarney, Ireland. There he met an American named David Andrews. They were both new to the town, and somebody suggested to Black that he befriend Andrews. “So I started doing things with him,” Black said. “He had a camera and loved taking pictures. Sometimes David let me use his camera, and he had to show me what to do. I didn’t have a clue about it. But that was the first time I ever used a camera.”

Black moved from Killarney to Dublin at age 23, hoping to go to school. He had enjoyed his initial experience with photography, so he began photo classes at Kevin Street College. “It was a three-year photography school with a technical orientation rather than a creative emphasis.”  Challenging enough that nearly half the students dropped out, Black was able to finish with an honors degree, the only one in his class to do so. “But I realized that all we had was a piece of paper. We really were not ready to go out and be photographers.”

While he was going to school, he latched on to a job in a studio that did weddings and portraits. He shot portraits at the studio and did darkroom work while the owner shot weddings. “The darkroom was like a closet. When my stomach was against the enlarger table, my bum was touching the door.”

Black was able to move to another job doing advertising photography at a commercial studio, where he worked until he learned his mother was dying. He moved back home to be with her until she died, but he found no photographic opportunities in that town, and he went to work at a sports complex. He had kept up with the American David Andrews, who now lived in Knoxville, and he said Andrews invited him to come to the United States and look for work. “I talked to David on Monday, and on Wednesday, I was on a plane.” He was 30 years old.

His first job in the States was with photographer Rip Noel, and he later went to work with Charles Brooks Photography. But he could not get a green card and had to go back to Scotland.  He said with Brooks’ help, he finally got a green card and came back to the States to work for Brooks again.

Gradually, he got enough money to buy his own equipment.  “I started doing weddings and it took hold, and the next thing I know I was really busy. While I enjoy doing weddings, who I am as a photographer is almost certainly portraiture.”

Black said negotiations are looking good for him to soon open a portrait studio in downtown Knoxville. You can find out more about John Black's photography at his website.

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