What is James Archambeault’s favorite photo?
Where do you carry that bit of your soul you call home?
For many Kentuckians, the answer can be found in a James Archambeault photograph.
Archambeault’s appeal lies in his ability to catch that peculiar geography, the eternal moment, that Kentuckians look at and say, “This is where I am from. This is home.”
Most of us are not artists. We see beauty, but we cannot paint it, photograph it, describe it. Archambeault’s gift is patience. He scouts the shot, waits for the light. Some days are fruitless. Some days yield so much Kentucky he can barely fit it all in.
The things he sees: This mountain cabin, barely holding onto its hillside. This ebullient colt, dancing with joy, without experience. The cool glades where the impossibly rich greenery waits for the fog to burn off, day after sweaty day.
If you’re a Kentuckian, Archambeault’s work shows a stranger where you are from. If you’re not, take a look: It’s where Kentucky is kept, between covers, in calendars and in framed photographs. It is our state as we carry it with us.
“He was one of the inspirations for me photographically when I was getting interested in photography in the ‘80s,” said John Snell, author of “Red River Gorge: My Second Home.”
During a presentation at the Lexington Photo Club, Archambeault was asked if visitors could come along with him as he sought out shots.
The easygoing Archambeault said, fine, observers could come along, but to bring a book or pillow because “he wasn’t going to click a few pictures and leave, he was going to stay until he got what he came to get.”
James Archambeault starts the day with a drive from his rural Scott County home on the bank of North Elkhorn Creek to the Shell station on Newtown Pike. (Fun fact: He photographed the area near the home for his book about historic Kentucky.)
He picks up a Lexington Herald-Leader and a New York Times and returns home, splitting the papers with his wife of almost 29 years, Lee Archambeault. Inside his house, you’ll be lucky to find an Archambeault photograph.
He knows them well enough already.
“I didn’t make Kentucky,” he said. “I simply went out and recorded what I found.”
Archambeault just turned 75. He is long removed from the days in which, unable to afford a hotel, he would drive days around the state, sleeping at night in a camper on the back of his truck, making coffee on a propane hot plate and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Those were dim early mornings. He was waiting for the light.
Look at any of Archambeault’s books or Kentucky calendars and you may take for granted the striations of fog hovering over the trees, the insistently green grass that seems to shelter a historic cabin. All of that is no-filter, all-film photography: It’s Archambeault waiting for the right moment with the right subject. He has a knack for being alone with his thoughts and waiting.
Some days he would drive around and come up empty. Others, he wound up with four or five useable shots. Shooting the beauty by which so many Kentuckians now define their state was a gamble.
James Archambeault: Most pronounce it Arch-am-BOW. Archambeault himself, on a voice mail, says it this way: Ar-CHAM-bow, with a French-Cajun twist.
Archambeault was born in Flint, Mich. When he was 7, his father, who worked in tool and die for General Motors, was transferred to western Pennsylvania. He has a younger sister, who is 69.
He attended Catholic schools and then Duquesne University, where he studied communications. He considered becoming a priest.
Instead, filled with the idealism from the presidency of John F. Kennedy, Archambeault joined the Peace Corps. He trained in Hawaii and worked in the Philippines doing communications work for regional development planning commissions.
He loved it: “I made a lot of friends, went to a lot of parties ... It was rockin’ and rollin’ in the Philippines. Americans were revered.”
He was not yet known as a photographer: “I had inklings. I did some work for the Peace Corps with a camera, but I didn’t consider myself a photographer by any means.”
He would later train volunteers in Hawaii. He returned to Pennsylvania at the age of 26 and looked for a job in planning.
He saw a sign that said, “U.P.I.” — United Press International. UPI had open jobs in Louisville and Columbus. Archambeault didn’t want to work in Columbus, and he had already “been caught by the beautiful landscapes of Eastern Kentucky.”
He worked in Louisville for six months, and then was transferred to Lexington in 1969. He met Robert Stephens, then-Fayette County judge executive who would go on to be the chief justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court, and was hired as Stephens’ administration assistant. He later moved to become administrator of the Child Advocacy Council.
After that, there was a gap of five years, Archambeault said, in which he did development work in Bardstown and property management. He got a call one day from an Oregon man who had a box of Kentucky prints and wanted to turn them into a book. Among the candidates for that job, Archambeault was the only one who wasn’t a full-time photographer.
He was hired.
“That changed my life,” Archambeault said. “(But) I also realized that I had a lot to learn about photography.”
It was not the most lucrative period of his life: “I was pretty poor back then. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were my forte.”
He had no money for motels, either. Archambeault would pull his truck “off the road somewhere where I was safe,” he said, and bunk down with his camper and a sleeping bag.
He travels sans weapon: “I said, if I can’t talk my way out of a situation I don’t need to be carrying a gun.”
“It seems romantic now,” Archambeault said, sitting in his home on the banks of the North Elkhorn. “I thought, what am I doing? But I persevered.”
In 1982, he finished the book, “Kentucky,” which cemented his niche among Kentucky photographers and book buyers.
Since then Archambeault has produced five more books (including “Historic Kentucky,” when he also wrote, 34 Kentucky calendars and 22 Pawley’s Island calendars. The Archambeaults have a second house at Pawley’s Island, S.C.
Archambeault’s favorite place to photograph: The Central Kentucky area where we’re sitting, heading north to Maysville. That would include both the rolling hills of Central Kentucky and the dips in farmland heading north toward Maysville. It’s country that you can imagine Daniel Boone seeing in its virgin state and gasping, wondering why hordes of people had not come
The Archambeaults’ two cats, majestic grays, bestow affection and obedience according to their own whims, as cats do. They wander into the house, then excuse themselves to check out the garden that stretches along the Elkhorn. James Archambeault always wanted to live on the water. Lee Archambeault required some convincing.
The two have known each other for 13 years before getting married. It is the second marriage for both. They are grateful to have found a a lifetime partner the second time around.
“He has educated people to see better,” Lee Archambeault said of her husband.
Archambeault is modest: “I simply recorded what I found. People pick up a book and say, there is my state. But I think it’s an accurate vision, too.”