Donna O’Neil’s love for photography was born from personal tragedy. More than seven years ago, the loss of a loved one led the former Williamson Herald managing editor–and current manager of Handy Hardware–to dust off a forgotten Nikkormat camera and begin shooting. It became a cathartic experience for O’Neil, capturing memories from the East Coast coastline and re-visiting favorite past times.
“After Al passed away, I thought I needed to do something for myself,” she said. “I took the camera to places we used to go—to the beach, to the mountains—to keep his memory alive. I showed them around, and people began buying copies.”
Only months after she first started shooting, O’Neil’s work was displayed in four galleries in Newburyport, Mass., the small sea town on the New Hampshire-Massachusetts state line, where she grew up. Her portfolio is dominated by coastal images, from sailboats and schooners to lighthouses and wharves.
“For my very first show, I framed 40 images in two weeks. More than 300 people showed up that night to see my work,” she said. “It’s mostly landscapes. Here, I’ll pull over into people’s yards to get the shot. I’m still in search for the highest point in Williamson County.”
O’Neil’s talent comes from trial and error, and all her techniques are self-learned. She’s since graduated from that dated Japanese camera, but still bases her images off instinct.
“Al worked on vintage cars and taught me a lot about color, texture… how to appreciate life,” she said. “And I used to paint, but I love that instant gratification of art through photography.”
Since her first exhibition, O’Neil has produced two photography books: the first of the historic Amesbury, Mass. flood in May 2006, which threatened to put several Massachusetts towns underwater; the second of multi-masted Tall Ships which visited Portsmouth, NH during a sailing tour of the coast.
O’Neil grew up around stories. Her mom, now retired, worked at a local bank and her dad was the editor of the Daily News, the Massachusetts newspaper where O’Neil eventually worked as a staff reporter. Later she became editor of GateHouse Media’s Wakefield Observer, a weekly publication covering a Boston suburb. Photography has become an extension of her writing, allowing her to narrate life through a lens.
“It’s a different canvas in Franklin [than on the East Coast]. There’s so much amazing photography to be shot here,“ she said. “So much to be told. It may sound cheesy but if you just stand here, sit still, you can feel the Battle of Franklin.”
The public will have the opportunity to see O’Neil’s work as part of the upcoming Franklin Art Scene at Damico Frame & Art Gallery on Friday, Sept. 7, 2012. The show will be her first in Franklin since moving to the city three years ago.
“People don’t know this side of me. It’s a great opportunity to show that part of me and jumpstart my photography again,” she said.
O’Neil will display several pieces at the gallery, located on 112 E. Fowlkes Street in downtown Franklin. Many of the photographs will reflect her artistic philosophy, and feature her East Coast work.
“I don’t shoot anything with attitude!” she said. “I much prefer to capture the story of a landscape, a streetscape or a body of water.”
O’Neil, who impulsively moved to Franklin after always envying life in the South, said that the switch from Massachusetts to Tennessee was an easy—and welcome—transition.
“Franklin is very similar to where I grew up, with its historical, small town feel,” she said. “I packed up my car three years ago, visited Franklin, loved it and never left.”