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2004 grad’s photos on display at Batte

Niklas Martin

Since graduating from Wingate University in 2004, John Huneycutt has carved out a good living making art.

For years, that has meant primarily doing wedding photography – which, as done by Huneycutt and many others, borders on being considered traditional “art.” But Huneycutt has other irons in the fire. He has a side business building and renting out photo booths for events, and lately he has been drawing notice, and larger and larger paychecks, for his fine-art photography.

Photo of eagle on a chair

John Huneycutt uses technology from the 1880s to create otherworldly photos, such as this one of an eagle perched on an antique chair.

In 2016, he was one of 10 artists statewide to earn a North Carolina Arts Council Fellowship, which brought with it a $10,000 prize. Huneycutt was the only photographer on the list, and he was the only honoree from tiny Oakboro, in Stanly County; the others ply their trade in more traditional artist magnets, such as Asheville, Chapel Hill and Seagrove. Huneycutt is the first Wingate graduate and the first Stanly County native to win the award.

This month, Huneycutt’s work is on display in the Helms Gallery, inside the Batte Center. The exhibition will be up through the end of April.

Huneycutt’s version of fine-art photography is far removed from the wedding portraits and family photos he takes on weekends. He takes magical photos of birds, buildings and people using the “wet plate” technique popular in the mid-to-late 1800s.

For years Huneycutt searched for a way to replicate the style of some of the world’s oldest photographs. He loved the look of the sepia-toned portraits from the Civil War era, and he toyed around with Photoshop for hours trying to reproduce it. “I would do filters and do actions and all these kind of things, but it never would look right,” he says.

So with some encouragement from former Wingate art professor Stephen Smith, Huneycutt decided to give the real thing a go. Using a 1901 camera, an 1876 Dallymer lens and a manual printed in 1864, Huneycutt spent a year experimenting with the wet-plate process. He didn’t get a viable photo for months.

Now, however, he’s something of a master, with his work having appeared in galleries around the world. Huneycutt loves the look the wet-plate process creates, with the chemicals leaving swirls and marks across the photos. “I like it because it’s not perfect,” he says. “Life’s not perfect.”

After graduating from Wingate, Huneycutt apprenticed with noted Charlotte photographer Richard Israel before striking out on his own. Israel praises the way Huneycutt composes his photos – whether wedding portraits or wet-plate photos of birds of prey.

“John has a fantastic natural eye for composition and seeing beyond the obvious,” he says. “Both are something that cannot be taught. You either have it or you don’t. John has it in abundance.”

Helms Art Gallery is open weekdays between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Admission is free.

Find out more about the art curriculum at Wingate University.