In 1990 and 1992 I made this series of portraits of individuals more than seventy years old and living independently in and around Durham, North Carolina. The attached texts were written by Nicholas Sholley from interviews he conducted with each person. My portraits were published in 1997 by W. W. Norton in Old and On Their Own with additional photographs by Thomas Roma of elderly in Brooklyn, New York, and text by Robert Coles.
Gilbert Fountain was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1903 and grew up in Halifax County, Virginia, where he helped farm tobacco with his four brothers and two sisters. Before he was thirteen, both his mother and father had died, the latter of a stroke while teaching Sunday school. Soon afterward, Gilbert ran away from home with only thirteen dollars in his pocket. He travelled by train to Far Rockaway, New York (because he liked the sound of it). Two and a half years later, having worked in a coal mine in Barber’s Creek, Virginia and then on an ice wagon in Quebec, Canada, Gilbert returned home to Halifax County three days before Christmas Eve. He worked through that year’s tobacco harvest and then moved to New York City.
Gilbert lived in New York for fifty-six years. During his first decade there, he worked as a garbageman in New Rochelle and cut cordwood in the Bronx. He met and married his first wife in 1927. She died a decade later of a cerebral hemmorage.
While Gilbert and some other men were cutting wood one Saturday, they saw the airship Hindenburg pass overhead. Later that day, they learned of its fiery end.
In the late 1930’s, Gilbert was hired to work at a junkyard, breaking down old machines for scrap. He married his second wife, Pauline around this time. Gilbert continued to work at the junkyard in New York for thirty-five years. Gilbert and Pauline purchased their first car, a brand new Catalina, in 1959. Pauline did most of the driving because of Gilbert’s heart condition. Pauline grew up in Granville County, North Carolina. When her kidneys began to fail in the early 1970’s, it made sense that she and Gilbert would move back to North Carolina for the cheaper medical care. She drove this last time too, a trip they used to make as many as seven times a year to visit Pauline’s relatives. Pauline died in 1975.
Gilbert continued to disassemble air conditioners and motors and refrigerators for scrap, running his own business out of his backyard in the rural outskirts of Durham County.
In 1992, he still works among the piles of die-cast metal parts, copper wire and tubing, old steel fan blades, and transformers. Nothing here is quite as large as a massive fifteen hundred gallon transformer he once dissembled, but the work supplements his social security and helps keep him going.
Gilbert is photographed at work in his backyard among various pieces of scrap. (written in 1992)