Durham NC – A Tobacco Town: Weekly Photo Challenge FRAME

“A photographer needs rectangular eyeballs and horse blinders to frame and focus the vision of what is seen.”

Roy Stryker



One of our many stops this summer as we made our way north toward Asheville, NC was an overnight in Durham, NC. We decided to explore a bit and were rewarded with a very interesting visit to their revitalized Tobacco District. The capture above gives a glimpse of what awaits you reflected in the mirrored doors of the American Tobacco Institute. While tobacco is certainly nothing to glorify, when framed (pun intended) within the history of a tobacco-centric town like Durham it becomes a very interesting and entertaining walk through an amazing national change in perspective.



“To photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude.”

Susan Sontag

Anyone over the age of 30 can certainly recall billboards, movies, TV shows and magazine articles with glamorous scenes of people smoking. Once the downsides of tobacco were identified and promoted, the glamour disappeared and the dangers to smokers’ health, and that of those around them became a much more prevalent subject. The surgeon general drove a move to put warnings on tobacco products and the decline in numbers of smokers was dramatic.



“A photographer can sit at the edge of paradise and may only see unframable beauty.”

Ryan Learoyd

One of the negative effects of this massive shift in public perception was the decline of towns where tobacco had been king. Durham, NC was definitely one of those places. The once-profitable town became a dreary has-been of a place as factories closed and jobs became scarce.ย  Rather than accept their fate and continue to decline, Durham has become a benchmark for creative revitalization. The centerpiece of the effort is the metamorphosis of the factory district into the American Tobacco Complex, a downtown extension of the American Tobacco Trail.



“A still photograph is simply an isolated frame taken out of the infinite cinema.”

Hollis Frampton

Durham has made the most of this iconic period of American history. The centerpieces of the area are the old Lucky Strike smokestack and water tower, but they are now surrounded by beautiful waterfalls, playful statues, plaques describing history, a restored train, and most importantly, locals and tourists enjoying a wonderful environment. Nearby, creative restauranteurs are delivering delicious food and once-decaying buildings have been restored as lovely condos and apartments. Healthy products from the worldwide headquarters of iconic Burts Bees completes the scene.



One doesn’t stop seeing. One doesn’t stop framing. It doesn’t turn off and turn on. It’s on all the time.
Annie Leibovitz
Cudos to the city of Durham for turning lemons into lemonade. In my mind the town has given us all a lesson on facing seemingly insurmountable odds and overcoming challenges.ย  If you’re ever in the area make a point of visiting Durham – you won’t be disappointed!

78 thoughts on “Durham NC – A Tobacco Town: Weekly Photo Challenge FRAME

  1. Transformation indeed ~ I’ve always been a bit curious as to how Tabacco Road and the culture of the industry is surviving in today’s environment, and your photos (and words) lay it out beautifully. Framing has always been a bit of a weakness for me and photography – although I now shoot and think about angles more than I use to…and your first shot is a brilliant example of what a framing eye sees (and my circular eyes do not ๐Ÿ™‚ ). I wish all cities with struggling industries could re-emerge as Durham has, it looks beautiful.

  2. Fun post Tina…love the simplicity of some of these old advertisements. And it does seem strange now to see actors smoking in the old tv shows and movies when it was so commonplace at the time. Well done. :}

  3. Pingback: Weekly Photo Challenge: Frame | stenoodie

  4. Ahhh, a town near and dear to my heart … I spent many years in Durham while those factories were churning out cigarettes (and the pungent smell of tobacco) and 30 years later, I was back for a number of years visiting my son in this totally reenergized and renewed city. I have such fondness for those brick buildings along Main St. in both of their versions. Thanks for the lovely reminder of my college town!

  5. Your photos reminded me that I recently read The Cigar Factory, a novel by Michele Moore. Set in Charleston, it portrays the tobacco industry here: from hand-rolled cigars to machine-made smokes. Then the ultimate shut-down of the factory. The building was recently rennovated and stands as a reminder of this industry way back when.

  6. Great quotes and I love the 15 cent lunch picture. The demonization of tobacco left some agricultural holes where I live, but nothing like what it did to Durham. This was a great promotional post for the city; kudos.

      • Prince Edward Island had a small but thriving tobacco business in the 1950’s to 1970’s – mostly Dutch farmers – an alternative to potatoes (I guess!) but they got “bought out” to stop growing.

  7. T… Having grown up in the tobacco belt . I am poignantly reminded of this industry’s rise out of the ” ashes” so to speak! Thank you for sharing the lemonade.

  8. Great information on the tobacco industry in Durham. Your photographs tell the story along with your words, Tina. Coffee .15 cents … those days are long gone. LOL
    We have a place in Tampa, Florida that has cigar shops from the cigar smoking era. I must find them. You’ve given me a post idea. Hope it’s OK if I decide to post some photographs along with the story.
    Anyway …. great photos, as always …. Have a Fabulous Sunday !!!
    Isadora ๐Ÿ˜Ž

  9. An interesting article on Tobacco, Tina. I never smoked but remember coming home from a night out and my clothes would have to go in the wash to get rid of the ‘smoke’ smell. Not so, these days, I’m glad to say ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. I still remember many ads on TV and billboards quite a few years ago promoting that tobacco and smoking is bad in Australia, and we must stop it. While there are still ads like these these days, but I don’t think to the extent as in the past. Today, use of tobacco is widely accepted as a lifestyle choice. At work, it is widely accepted that one can have a “smoker’s break” outside.

    Durham sounds like it is rebuilding very well. Burts Bees – I love their products and now I know where their headquarters are ๐Ÿ˜€ I love the first quote. Rectangular eyeballs, lol. Not sure if get that but I find this phrase hilarious ๐Ÿ˜€

    • Wow Mabel, I’m surprised. Here in the US it seems young people, who of course think they are invincible, are smoking but there are far fewer smokers in other demographics. Smokers feel like criminals if they light up around anyone else. Many businesses now prohibit smoking even outdoors in front of their buildings. I’m amazed Aussies, famous for,their clean living, aren’t taking a similar route.

      I loved that rectangular eyeballs image too!

      Sent from my iPad


      • Here in Australia, there has been a trend to band smoking on sidewalks and smokers can only smoke a certain distance away from some office buildings. Certainly been a push and action for it in recent years.

        Still, there doesn’t seem to be much stigma around smoking – many still do it and talk about going for “smoko breaks” openly at work. I’d say at least half of the Aussies I know smoke regularly or have done so at some point in their lives. Very interesting indeed.

      • One wonders what he attraction is with all the bad press Mabel. Perhaps they’re just needing work breaks and not actually smoking LOL

        Sent from my iPad


  11. A very interesting and highly educational take on the challenge with great photos, Tina. Thanks for the history and the photographer’s quotes, a lovely round-up. It’s always a treat to visit here.

  12. Pingback: Frame (3) | What's (in) the picture?

  13. As always, when we dig deep to find one fitting image for the theme, you come up with many, Tina ๐Ÿ™‚

    Here, I enjoy the quotes on photography as much as the images …

    Thank you so much for sharing and have a nice weekend ๐Ÿ™‚

  14. It is nice Durham has opted to keep their tobacco district. Many other places would have demolished the buildings and do some sort of redevelopment rather than do historic preservation.

  15. Great captures….sure does take us back in time!! Always wanted to make a stop there….now we definitely will!! ๐Ÿ˜œ

  16. Tina, Having gone to Duke, I enjoyed your latest post. When I was at Duke the American Tobacco and Ligget and Meyers factories were working overtime. If the wind was blowing from the direction of the factories on a rainy breezy day you could smell tobacco on the East Campus. In those days the East Campus was the women’s campus but that’s another story. Another story is the end of segregation in Durham during the early 60s. Seeing “whites only” signs, sit ins and Dr. Martin Luther King in my freshman year and civil rights sit ins and anti Vietnam protests by my senior year was as educational as what I learned in the classroom. You brought back fantastic memories. Hope all is well with you and Bailey. Ken Date: Sat, 27 Aug 2016 14:31:19 +0000 To: deckok@msn.com

    • What a terrific comment Ken! We were really impressed with what they’ve done. It’s like a small Asheville now with great food, lots of outdoor dining, nice shops and residential areas. Loved your trip down memory lane. Glad I was able to stir them up! All’s well here and hope you’re loving CA!

      Sent from my iPad


  17. Yes, cudos to Durham for making the lemonade. The shots of the old buildings and ads were great. Can you imagine a “hippo sized root beer”?

  18. A very interesting post Tina. Many areas of the UK where manufacturing was once king, but in steep decline as manufacturing has been moved to other parts of the world where labuor is cheaper have had to face similar issues. Durham is clearly a shining example of what can be done. Beautiful images to illustrate Durham’s story. ๐Ÿ™‚

  19. Love these! I tried to pull up your blog on the mental hospital here in TC. I couldn’t find it . But while searching I perused all of your photos ! All I can say is wow! You haven taken some masterpieces T.


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