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Volume 16, Issue 42 - October 16 - October 22, 2008
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On the Job with Photographer Jackie Niles

Country ghosts inspire this artist’s work

by Margaret Tearman

Give photographer Jackie Niles a season, and she’d ask for this one, for it is the season of ghosts. Her photographs are of a wishful past, some serene in their abandoned state, others haunting odes to a life long lost.

In Calvert County, the lonely newcomer felt the isolation. Niles and her husband had moved to the southern end of the peninsula from suburban D.C. 17 years ago in search of the country life Niles enjoyed as a child in then-undeveloped Northern Virginia.

“We had no close-by neighbors, which was hard on me,” recalls Niles. “I’m a very social person. I felt like Laura Ingalls Wilder, trying to make it in the wilderness.”

Without nearby friends, Niles took to wandering back roads, always with her camera in hand. On her explorations, she shot old tobacco barns, farm fencing and weathered farmhouses.  

“I was just awed by the simplicity of the farmhouses and the beauty of the fields,” Niles says. “And the barns, the wonderful old barns.”

Most have been abandoned and many are in ruin, but to Niles’ eye, they are relics, beautiful in their ghostly way.

In her photos Niles sees the past life in obsolete objects — like a dilapidated chair, tossed as trash on the side of a Calvert road, which became one of her favorite photos.

“I almost drove by it,” Niles recalls. “I pulled over and was immediately taken with it. I had hoped to photograph it in all four seasons, but when I went back, a big tree had fallen on it.”


Country Ghosts, City Success

Niles’ love of rural landscapes and their afterglow has taken her photography career in an unexpected new direction: to Hollywood — California, not Maryland — where her brother is a player.

“My brother Steve Niles writes comic books and screenplays,” Niles says. Well known to graphic comic aficionados, Steve lives in Los Angeles, where one of his comics, 30 Days of Night, made it to the big screen as a $35 million film.

Brother and sister collaborated on a new script book for one of Steve’s stories, Freaks of the Heartland. A cross between a comic book and script, a script book is heavy with images to convey the story as the author imagined it.

To illustrate the tale of a horrific family hidden in a farmhouse attic, Niles uses the magic of digital technology to transform her photos of leafless trees and old farmhouses into haunting images. A photograph of a harmless white farmhouse is manipulated with angles and colors, turning it into an image straight out of a nightmare.

“My future is unknown,” Niles says. “I hope collaborating with Steve is not a one-shot deal. But I believe that wherever I go is where I was meant to be.” The book is scheduled for release later this month. Find it at and Fridays Creek Winery.

The Making of an Artist

Niles credits her success to a “good eye” rather than extensive training.

“I didn’t even start taking pictures until the 1980s,” she says. “I’m self-taught.”

Those first pictures were shot on a visit to France during a gap year in college. Niles packed a 35mm camera and some black and white film. “I just took that camera and learned to use it,” she said.

When she viewed her results, she was hooked.

Niles next reflected the gritty, urban environment of Washington, D.C.: city dwellers against a background of vacant storefronts ravaged by poverty and decorated with graffiti. She describes those early photos as revealing the “contradiction” in her character: “city girl versus country girl.”

The country girl spoke louder. When Niles and her husband, Bill, found their way to Calvert, she used her camera to tell the story of their new hometown. This is the kind of place where I grew up,” Niles says. “And I believe the spirit of Calvert is still rural.” Alleys gave way to rural roads; neglected barns replaced boarded-up storefronts.

As her venue changed, her theme remained constant: relics left behind.

At Home on the Farm

Almost two decades later, and now a family of five, the Niles clan has traded in the solitude of their first home in Calvert for the more gregarious Dunkirk. Niles likes to photograph relics, not become one. But their new home is an old one: a century-old farmhouse, itself once the heart of a farming life.

“With the first glimpse of this house,” says Niles, “I knew I was home. It was like falling in love.”

The old farmhouse Niles loves managed to survive the encroaching subdivisions.

“I want to capture Calvert’s heritage before it’s gone,” Niles says. “I want to remind people of the beauty still at our doorstep.”

See Niles’s work at Seascapes in North Beach, Shore Living in Dunkirk, Fridays Creek Winery in Owings and Jefferson-Patterson Park and Museum in St. Leonard.

© COPYRIGHT 2008 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.