If you want to meet someone in Durham, North Carolina, it’s best to acquaint yourself with Cocoa Cinnamon on Geer Street. While they have 2, going on 3 locations, the locals have a strong affinity for the 420 W. Geer Street spot that resides across from Geer Street Gardens in one direction and across the famed King’s Sandwiches in the other direction. This corner coffee shop has a special place in the hearts and minds of the Bull City.
New-ish to Durham, photographer Christopher T. Martin has already caught the bug for Cocoa Cinnamon and asked to meet there. I’d quickly learn that sitting on a comfy couch was a far stretch from this commercial photographer’s day to day. With a background in anthropology, a sense of adventure, love of exploring and a passion for capturing an authentic view of the world around him, Chris is often scaling every inch of the city and taking that to great heights as often as possible.
A relatively new transplant from Atlanta, Georgia, Chris moved to the triangle area in November of 2015. Despite having less than a year under his belt here in Durham, he has caught onto and a case of Bull City love, opting to name his commercial photography business Bull City Images.
Like most of our city, BullCityImages.com is still under construction, but you can keep up with Chris on Instagram under BullCityImages to see his captures of the Bull City. Dedicated to his craft he maintains his established photography business in addition to avidly working to become an integral member of our community. Check out his impressive photography portfolio at ChristopherTMartin.com.
Taking a sip of yet another flawlessly executed Americano, I listened to Chris tell me about his world and view of the Bull City. Lost in his interesting stories and delicious coffee I nearly forget to start taking it all down for the purposes of the interview. I took one more sip of coffee before asking Chris to start back at the beginning.
Chris: I am a commercial photographer, a relatively new transplant from Atlanta, GA, where I started my career. I have photographed every conceivable subject but prefer to work with everyday people and look to capture what makes them who they are. I enjoy the unexpected every job brings and finding beauty all around me.
I enjoy people and their spaces. You learn tons about a person from the space they inhabit and the things they keep around them. Through my wanderings in the city, different things will make me stop and look around more: interesting structures or unusual items.
Alvin Friega has a huge red barn with a new tin roof that stood out among the bramble. His yard is full of architectural salvage and large scale art pieces in various states of completion. He has spent years collecting items from Durham landmarks and looks to reconnect those pieces where they make the most sense. Walking through his place he told amazing stories and I felt like I was in an episode of American Pickers. He’s a special person.
What brought you to the Durham area?
Chris: My wife Stacey is from Chapel Hill. She’s from a fairly large family and most still live locally. We came back to be closer to the family as needs arose.
When I asked Chris how long he has had Bull City Images, it became clear that the scenes and faces of the city aren’t the only thing he’s cataloging. He could remember the exact date of November that he moved here, the month the idea started to roll in and even when he made his first Bull City Images Instagram post. Perhaps it’s his true nature, the background in anthropology or he too has become captivated by this city. Mostly likely, like all things, a combination of all the above.
Chris: April was when I came up with the idea. My first post was my brother in law’s wedding in May of this year at the Rickhouse right up here on Foster street. It was in front of a chalkboard with chalk art of the Durham skyline. I had the idea before that, but that was the moment it all came together. I had been back to Atlanta to work and the idea came to me and I sketched it out.
I went against my old idea of no Insta-cheating. I got over it. I sucked it up. Reposting when jobs went live and covers went live. Yeah, they’re all produced or shot or touched up, but I don’t overly work my stuff. I like enhancing realness. Shooting with my big camera adds more polish to my images. I try not to let it take away from any spontaneity.
Up next I asked him what was his inspiration to open the business and for the name and as he began his answer, I found it difficult not to yell, “welcome to Durham!”
Chris: I haven’t really opened the business, I’ve just grown into. It’s trying to connect. It’s connecting through a name instead of a person. It makes it obvious where I am. It was trying to connect to the city and make it obvious to the city.
I knew I was changing markets when I left Atlanta, and I was looking for something that gave me a better direct connection. I toyed with some ideas and then Bull City Images came to mind. After taking the photo at my brother in-laws wedding at the Rickhouse in May, I decided to use Instagram as a marketing too.
The logo came to me while waiting for my subjects on a commercial job in Atlanta. I sketched it out on set. I’ve been out in the city looking for the faces that are all around. Linking those people with businesses and things to do. Be Durham.
I had a logo idea and since then it has changed a little. I am playing with a few ideas that together still work as a defined brand but also work with some of the marketing and exposure ideas I have. Some of these play into how to be involved and more visually evident in Durham.
What stands out to you the most about Durham?
Chris: The character.
It’s a big little city. My wife’s on a project that she needed new imagery for. They wanted an urban feel. I didn’t realize how little skyline there is. You can walk the streets and quickly be out of the main drag. It amazes me that only a few sites make up the visual background of Durham. The fact that the water tower and smoke stack of the Tobacco Warehouse campus still dominate the skyline blows me away.
It seems like a place where people are able to start something of their own. It’s small enough. It’s big enough. You can start something that will appeal to a group of people. There is a diversity — not just socioeconomic and educational diversity. You go to the Durham Farmer’s Market and you meet people who love food and they are not specifically foodies.
Moving onto the next question I was very curious to hear a so-called newcomer’s perspective. I asked what changes Chris would like to see for the city of Durham.
Chris: Non-obvious change. I think things can change a little in terms of what they are. I think that the integrity of its history needs to remain the same. Especially for the people who have been here awhile who like to remember how it used to be. It’s great when an area changes and new life is brought to some place that has been overlooked, but you can’t get too far from the past. History is important and should not be left behind.
It would be nice if there was more stuff to do. More things in town that don’t necessarily cost money. The city could use more green-space and parks. Give families a better reason to be downtown. There should be more than just a bench on a corner to hang out on a beautiful day.
More stuff that is affordable — variety is the key. Not chain stores, but not everything needs to be high end or too fancy. People should be able to go into town to buy things, everyday needs. Continue to make downtown a place the community can benefit from. The food thing shouldn’t get out of hand just because it’s kitsch. Don’t make it small plate and outrageously expensive.
I like that new areas are getting developed. That people are getting out of their comfort zone. My wife wasn’t allowed to go to Durham. Having been so involved with the Atlanta Belt Line, I’ve seen the success and potential around a simple trail concept. The American Tobacco Trail has a wealth of potential. It is a huge resource for development to exist alongside it. The city needs to develop a plan to improve its safety and provide a plan for development along it.
I smirked and then took the final sip of my Americano, not pointing out to Chris that, more often than not, when a person thinks ‘someone’ needs to do something, generally they’re speaking to themselves. It reminded me of the very first The Bulls of Durham interview with Bull Street Market and Gourmet owner Anne Niemann. She too thought ‘someone’ needed to make a positive change and that someone turned out to be her. I didn’t want to ruin the surprise for Chris and look forward to the day he looks back and realizes he’s that someone. That he got caught up in make the Bull City better and ‘they’ became the people he was working alongside for the greater good of our city.
Putting all that aside it came time to ask Chris the hardest, seriously loaded question of them all — which bull in the city is his favorite?
Chris: I like the little ones. The unexpected ones. I noticed one next to a train trussle.
That is the point where I could no longer keep my Bull City loving bias at bay and shouted that is my favorite bull as well. I knew exactly which bull his was referring to on the bridge over Chapel Hill Street at the point where South Great Jones street intersects and becomes the Downtown Loop of Ramseur street. I could see exact;y why he’d caught Chris’ attention. The small, unassuming the bull sits right outside the reach of the masses watching Durham go by — a lot like Chris himself.
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Sheila Amir is a health & nutrition writer who fell in love with Durham, North Carolina and starting writing a book about it.