Honest Work: Landon Nordeman on BBQ Nation

A. J. Wilhelm

A photographer turns his lens on the artists of the barbecue pit

At five-thirty in the morning, well before sunrise, while I photographed Rodney Scott and his assistants working inside the smoking pit at Scott's Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, South Carolina, there was a loud banging on the door. And so began the steady stream of barbecue devotees, cash in hand, ready to pay for smoked pork pulled right off the pig.

Every assignment I do for SAVEUR is exciting and unique, but the photographs I shot for "BBQ Nation," exceeded all my expectations. I made more than 8,000 images over the course of seven days at five pit-cooked barbecue establishments in four states: Arkansas, Tennessee, and North and South Carolina. At each location, I began shooting before dawn and worked until dark—eating barbecue for every meal.

As I watched Gerri Grady of Grady's Bar-B-Q in Dudley, North Carolina, prepare for the long day in her kitchen, she fed me a piece of crispy pigskin just pulled from the pit. It was amazing—like the best piece of bacon you ever ate, only a thousand times better. And I will never forget 64-year-old Sam Thompson, a customer at Scott's. I noticed him as he was leaving and quickly approached, asking permission to make his photograph. At first he stood in front of me, tense and upright. I encouraged him to take a deep breath, and I made a few pictures. Then I asked him to remove his cap. He did that, then peered into the camera. His face visibly relaxed; his eyes widened just a bit and focused on my lens. It felt like he was looking right through me. My heart was pounding. Click. I put the camera down, bowed my head: "Tank you."

Saveur readers are accustomed to seeing people in their kitchens. This time I wanted to eliminate the context and get to the heart of the culture of barbecue: the people who make it and the people who eat it. I wanted to show my admiration for these people by making honest portraits against a stark white background, with no distractions. I wanted saveur readers to see that these people are not just cooks; they are artists—truly, masters of the pit.

As a photographer, my goal is to connect with people as a fellow human being and establish a relationship of trust in a short time so that their personality comes though in the photograph. If that person is Brenda Coney from Brickeys, Arkansas (pictured above), it can be easy to do. Brenda greeted my assistant, AJ, and me with a big smile as she asked, "Where you boys from?!" We arrived as complete strangers but departed like old friends.