After tobacco, a life in pictures

by Jordan Green

Bryan Snipes was the last employee of the photography department at RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. before he was laid off after more than 26 years with the company. He was less than 12 months from qualifying for full retirement benefits.

But don’t think he’s bitter. “RJR done a lot for me,” he said, standing on East 4th Street and gazing at the smokestack looming above the old Bailey power plant. “My grandfather worked for them for 42 years. I never smoked, but as long as it’s legal I don’t think anyone should tell you whether you should or shouldn’t smoke.”

A shot of smokestack with its classic inscription of “RJR Tob. Co.” framed by glass tiles that was taken from within Wake Forest Biotech Place is the photographer’s tribute to the company. Another shot, taken inside the power plant, shows the corporate logo with the paint literally peeling away. The fat flecks of paint resemble leaves that could blow away with the next gust of wind.

“That’s the reason I like that one with the RJR logo,” Snipes said.

“It’s like the old company’s peeling away — the way the government keeps attacking it and how things have changed with the merger.”

Reynolds American was formed in 2004 through a merger of RJR and Brown & Williamson, the US subsidiary of British American Tobacco. “In 20 years, British American will probably own all of it,” Snipes said with a laugh, “and it will all be moved overseas.”

Snipes was pursuing a double major in math and business at Davidson County Community College when he saw a flier on a bulletin board about a photography class. He bought the textbook and read it cover to cover twice before the first class. Photography immediately appealed to his mathematical sensibility.

“The way film works is the film is sensitive to light,” he explained.

“The brighter the light you let in the less time you let it hit. If you want more to be in focus front to back the longer you have to have your exposure.”

A family member got Snipes an interview at RJR, and eventually he was hired full time. During his tenure with the company spanning a quarter century Snipes designed annual reports, photographed NASCAR drivers for the Winston Cup racing series and otherwise provided images to cultivate RJR’s corporate identity.

Snipes is particularly fond of his experience photographing the Winston No Bull 5 races. The company would hold a contest to select five Winston-brand smokers who were flown to a race. Each contestant was paired with one of five drivers who were the top finishers in a previous race. The driver who won the race and the corresponding contestant each received $1 million.

Snipes was responsible for photographing the excursions. The company would typically organize some kind of off-track activity to allow the fans an opportunity to hang out with the drivers. One outing included a visit to a shooting range at Talladega in Alabama. Another involved a show in Las Vegas. During the latter episode the drivers and fans bumped into boxing promoter Don King, who comp-ed the party of 50 with tickets for a fight.

Snipes’ work has slowed down somewhat since he was forced to start his own business.

“I’m not real good at marketing,” he said. “I’m really good at what I do, with computers and stuff. I don’t know how to talk to people. It’s usually because someone recommends me.”

Snipes works on a contract basis for Novant Health, taking photographs of the hospital system’s new doctors. He restores old photographs, and shoots weddings and other events.

But Reynolds’ legacy and current operations continue to play a significant role in Snipes’ work, both as a client and iconic part of the Winston-Salem’s urban landscape. He spent last week photographing Reynolds employees volunteering for the United Ways’ “Days of Caring” program. And Snipes is paid to document progress in the renovation of the historic 90-3 and 90-1A RJ Reynolds buildings, which will eventually house tech company Inmar.

With a keen eye for detail, extensive commercial experience and the kind of technical acumen that comes from obsessively devouring manuals, Snipes has gradually ventured into fine arts territory since he was laid off from Reynolds in the middle of the last decade. He held his first show at Chelsee’s Coffeeshop in 2007. His third and fourth shows respectively go up at Steele Group Architects on Nov. 2 and Chelsee’s on Dec. 7.

Several of Snipes’ fine-art photographs have come about through opportunities to explore the old Bailey power plant during commercial jobs. A photograph he took of an elevator shaft captures strips of sunlight playing across the wall in a way that resembles the stripes of the American flag. A section of newer brickwork in the upper left corner suggests a panel of stars, completing the effect.

“I happened to look at it,” Snipes recalls. “I told the guy: ‘Wait a minute, let me get this.’” Reynolds donated the property to Piedmont Triad Research Park in 2010, and former president Douglas Edgeton has said the park plans to convert the building rather than demolish it, adding that it could one day house a library, museum, entertainment venue, restaurants or shops.

Another photograph by Snipes features the railroad trestles that once conveyed coal to the power plant. The discolored columns, pooled water, stubborn weeds and luminous sky — is it dusk or dawn? — combine to create a fantastical, steam-punk effect.

The photos beg a question: What future will lurch from the frames of the past?