It would be simple to say that local celebrated photographer Jim Graham’s new book, “Bound to the Country,” is the perfect antidote to the moment.
While many of us remain homebound, along comes a collection of gorgeous images that speaks poetic to the nuance, the hunger, the wild, the bigness and the nostalgia of the countryside.
But the book is not about this moment.
The images, curated from Graham’s three decades spent nosing along the southern Chester County country alongside Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds, are timeless.
You won’t find a single trapping of modern-day America within these pages: no sleek cars, buzzing devices, smartwatches or glowing flat screens.
It is a wondrous place to exist.
“I wanted someone to look at these images and think it could be just what W. Plunket Stewart saw when he set about to establish this land in 1910,” Graham says.
For the uninitiated, W. Plunket Stewart was a man whose boyhood dream in the 1880s of owning hunting hounds and his own country hunt spills over today in the nearly 30,000 acres of unspoiled, undulating amber and green countryside known as The Cheshire Hunt.
Even the most casual attendees of Winterthur’s Point-to-Point steeplechase — those there just for a sun-dappled julep and the conversation-making headpieces — have gotten at least a glimpse of Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds as they make their annual run.
“And the experience at Winterthur is simply wonderful,” Graham says. “But just a little farther away, up in Unionville, there are some races and hunts that I would consider among the finest in the nation.”
Once upon a time Graham, like all young photographers, struggled to find his voice.
“What are you trying to say?” he asks. “Or, more apt, what are you trying to see?”
Eventually, his singular vision for news photography earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination for work at The News Journal in the early 90s. Soon after, Graham learned a lesson he won’t soon forget.
“I was always taught as a newspaper photographer that my images would end up in the paper one day, and the cat pan the next,” he says. “The wonderful metaphor is that the day they announced the Pulitzer nomination, they put my photo on the front page of the paper. The very next day I was on assignment to take a woman’s portrait, and as I went into her home, there was a cat’s pan. And there was a cat doing its business on my photo.”
Graham’s affinity for his future documentary subject began as a child, growing up in the country, where he says hounds would regularly run through a nearby apple grove.
“My mother was always afraid I’d be playing outside and the hounds would run by and carry me off,” he notes in the book.
And just as his mother once feared, they did — as did Nancy Hannum, a Chester County Lady of Legend who was the sole leader of Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds, from 1945 to 2003. She died as the longest-tenured Masters of Foxhounds in the nation, if not the world.
Clearly a favorite subject of Graham’s, one of the book’s most striking images is a close shot, black and white photo of Hannum’s weathered face.
“That’s not just a portrait,” Graham says. “That’s a landscape. That’s the country. That’s what it looks like to be bound to the land. She is the reason for this book, this idea of how love of the country is in someone’s eyes and face. The book isn’t about fox hunting; it’s about the symbiotic relationship between people and the land.”
Three times a week for upwards of 15 years, Graham sat shotgun in Hannum’s old Jeep, following and photographing the chase.
“Some thought I was taking my life in my own hands riding with her,” Graham says, laughing. “I learned a great deal from her in general about hunting, about life, about all different kinds of things. She was very giving.”
Considering Hannum’s great wealth (she was the granddaughter of Union Pacific Railroad tycoon Edward Henry Harriman) and the sumptuous photos of riders in rich scarlet, gold-buttoned coats riding atop majestic steeds through untouched land, it’s easy to call up “Downton Abbey’s” romantic, monied, English-village ethos.
Graham bristles at the connection.
“The country, the hunt … it’s not full of fancy people,” Graham says. “Nancy was of means, but she was not fancy. You’ll find a lot of horse trainers out here, day laborers who will scrape up just enough money to do this because what they love is simply the challenge of getting across country on horseback.”
And that much-loved challenge is slowly going away.
As land is parceled and broken off throughout the nation, vast country disappears, and, with it, a tradition 600 years in the making.
“There aren’t many great hunts left, which is so sad,” Graham says. “I’m choosing to document history, to say, ‘This time-honored tradition of hunting-hounds has existed since the 1400s, and it’s dying. Let’s not let it.’ So this is a history book in that sense.”
The linen-bound book sells for $75 at Cheshireeditions.com, Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, and Trail Creek Outfitters in Glen Mills. He will do a book signing Friday, Nov. 20, at 2 p.m. at the Centerville Cafe.
From his readers, he hopes his 30 years of documentary-style work does more than sit on a coffee table or make for cozy browsing over coffee. He hopes it stirs a call to the country.
“In the end, I think the message I most want to make clear is to cherish this open space, to prioritize preservation and realize how vital the land is,” he says. “For everyone.”