Working out of a tiny post office in Berry, Kentucky, postman Mark “Pappy” Bradford, 51, interacts with more dogs than people, feeding them Hardee’s breakfast sandwiches, while stuffing their owner’s mailboxes with the latest cable TV offers.
The monotony of a rural mail route is the kind of job where you’ll find out a lot about yourself since you are often your only companion.
All that time alone, for some, can be the genesis of an outburst of creativity. The late John Prine, fresh out of the U.S. Army, wrote the songs on his brilliant 1971 self-titled album while delivering the mail along the blue highways near his home in Maywood, Illinois. Songs like "Paradise," "Sam Stone" and "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore."
Bradford has turned his own time alone on his rural Kentucky route into a creative outlet for photography. The budding artist has spent the last several years taking photographs along his 92-mile route.
“I started with the post office 20 years ago and have loved it since the very first day. I see the same thing every day. People say, ‘well that’s boring,’ yet every day something is different," he said.
“It’s great working in a small town like Berry. I was raised on a farm, and I get to smell the plowed grounds. That’s one of my favorite smells.”
Bradford graduated with a Bachelors-in-Fine-Arts degree from Eastern Kentucky University. “I took a little bit of everything, sculpture, painting, drawing, metalsmithing, and photography because I like all different kinds of art," he told The Courier Journal.
But art doesn’t always pay the bills and Bradford needed a real job with a consistent paycheck.
“There weren’t too many kings and queens wanting me to be their court artist. I thought about teaching, but I’m one of those people who hates to get up in front of a group and talk," he said.
Being a mailman "was always in the back of my mind. It’s a perfect job for me, I think.”
Art took a back seat until a changing relationship slowly brought it back into his life. With his marriage of 17 years failing, to keep depression at bay, he decided to only do things that made him happy.
“I loved seeing the beauty around me so I would go out after work and chase sunsets. I would find a different place and take pictures of sunsets, animals, anything to make myself happy," he said.
The change of seasons along his route also caught his eye and is reflected in his work. Often, he photographed the subtle things along his route that only he would notice, bending his 2003 Honda Element through the Snake Licks and Crooked Creeks of God’s country.
That red barn along Keith Lane suddenly looked magnificent in a blanket of snow and made him stop, point his iPhone 7 out the window, and capture the image.
One of his favorite places to make photos on his route is Grover Criswell Road, near Sunrise, Kentucky.
“There’s a tree on a hill that I photograph at least 20 times a year,” Bradford said. “I photograph it every season, from both sides."
Bradford said that's the same place where he photographs a lot of wildlife, too.
"Any of my photos that have peacocks in them, that’s the road, and there are lots of horses as well," he said, adding "it’s an interesting road and it’s maybe two miles, something like that.”
For a long time, Bradford's art was shot mainly for himself, and not seen by others, until Jack Gruber, a USA Today photographer and founder of the Boyd’s Station Project in Harrison County, discovered Bradford’s work. Gruber realized that many of Bradford's photos had never been seen, much less downloaded from his phone.
"I’m a dinosaur when it comes to technology. I’m not very good with computers or anything like that," Bradford said.
The nonprofit Boyd’s Station Project was established in 2018 to document Harrison County for years to come with photojournalism students.
Gruber, a native of the county, says, “Our main emphasis is to mentor and educate the next generation of photojournalists, learning how to document a county as they did back in the Farm Security Administration years,” during the Great Depression.
Now, Bradford's photos are about to be seen for the first time with shows of his work at the Boyd’s Station Gallery in Cynthiana and the Ki Smith Gallery in SoHo in New York City.
“I’m kind of scared, I guess," he said of having his art shown in two different shows. "I’ve never really done anything like this. I mean I’m excited, it’s a great opportunity and I’m happy and privileged. I just hope it works out.”
Gruber said the nonprofit found Bradford “when he started following Boyd’s Station on Instagram. Suddenly there was just this amazing photographer out there with an Instagram feed in Harrison County that we knew nothing about.”
“He’s just not the guy you’d think of, we’re so narrow-minded when we look at the things people do, and we’re like 'oh, a postman, he just drives all day, puts the mail in a slot and that’s about it,' when in fact this guy is a pretty good photographer.”
Gruber said it's amazing that Bradford is doing something every day on his own that Boyd Station is trying to do — document Harrison County.
"He’s doing everything that we teach students to do. To document the place they live in and become part of it. To look to where you live through everyday events, scenes and sights, but he was doing it to fill his own need to be creative," he added.
For Bradford, it's not about the newfound acclaim or recognition. It's about documenting his own life.
“When I think of pictures, it’s not to show people what I can do, it’s more, look where I get to live my life and enjoy my work. That’s what my photography is. That’s what I’m doing when I take pictures, just sharing the joy that I get," he said. "I just like to take pictures of stuff I like to see. I think it’s in my blood.”
Reach photographer Pat McDonogh at firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: The Rural Route Collection is an extensive body of photographs by local Harrison County, Kentucky postman, and photographer Mark Bradford. He shatters the monotony of a daily mail route by capturing encounters along the backroads and farm lanes of Harrison County. For 20 years, Bradford has worked for the Berry Post Office where he has served his community as a vital member of the distribution chain and as a visual documentarian. What began as an artist's medication has become a living document of over 6,000 images.
WHERE: Boyd's Station Gallery, 203 E. Pike St., Cynthiana, Kentucky
WHEN: May 13-June 19. Gallery hours are Friday, 4-8 p.m., Saturday, 12-6 p.m., and Sunday, 12-4 p.m.
COST: Boyd’s Station Gallery is free and open to the public.
MORE INFORMATION: Follow Pappy Bradford on Instagram at; @pappybradford.To learn more about the exhibit and the non-profit Boyd’s Station Gallery, visit boydsstation.org/boydsstationgallery.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Kentucky postman turns route into creative outlet for photographty