Ray turns love of Highlands waterway into photography book

  • After years of taking photos in and around the Cullasaja River, photographer Peter Ray decided to turn his collection of images into a book.
    After years of taking photos in and around the Cullasaja River, photographer Peter Ray decided to turn his collection of images into a book.

Peter Ray found his calling, and his home, in Highlands and the surrounding beauty of the plateau.

He found his muse in the Cullasaja River which has its headwaters here and follows a meandering path down the mountain to Franklin and onward before emptying into the Little Tennessee River.  

Ray, 75, took his love affair with the Cullasaja River and developed a coffee-table book titled “The Cullasaja, A Mountain River of Wonder,” filled with 125 photos culled from a cache of more than 1,500 photos taken of the Cullasaja and its surroundings over the past five years. 

“I was really drawn to the river,” Ray said by phone. “It didn’t start as a book project. I was just drawn to the river and went back, over and over.”

Ray will be available to sign copies of his new book from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday at Reeves Hardware, located on Main Street in Highlands. 

Ray is a Twin Cities native and migrated from Minnesota to Highlands by way of Chicago and Memphis.

A retired family and marriage pastoral counselor with Martha Porter, his wife of 30 years, Ray embraced the high country and its bucolic scenery of the Cullasaja and wanted to do more than just look at it. 

Recently retired from his second career, working at Reeves Hardware, Ray said this book was a one-time thing. 

“I really don’t have plans for a second book,” he said.

Coming from the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Ray has always been drawn to water. 

“There is something about moving water I’ve always found captivating,” he said. “Everything about the Cullasaja River, its tributaries, its wildlife, nature… I wanted to record all that.”

These photos, taken when he picked up photography as a hobby five years ago, started with what he calls “a very basic Nikon camera and three lenses,” and involved everything associated with the Cullusaja River, whose headwaters’ origins begin around Whiteside mountain.

About two years ago, the idea hit him to take this horde of photos gathering cyber-dust on jump drives and computer hard drives and whittle them down into a book. So, Ray took the 125 best photos and, with the help of local publisher, Marjorie Christiansen, fashioned them into his book.

“I’m pleased with it,” he said. “Marjorie did a fantastic job of laying out the book. When you get it, you’ll see it’s a very good book.”

Photographs dominate the book, spiced with a running narrative cutline, which Ray wrote himself, with the help of his wife, Martha.

“I just love doing this photography,” he said.

He enjoyed the book’s creative process.

“It was fun figuring out what photos would go in there,” Ray said. “It was fun to come with quotes and narratives to go in the book.”

Ray saw photography as a spiritual exercise, according to his website, seeing the pastime as a way of seeing and being present in the world in which he lives.

“I love living here. I have not wanted to travel a lot because there is no end to exciting images to see and photograph all around me. Every day presents its own visual gift.” 

Ray was pleasantly surprised by the popularity of the book after its publishing, with many friends and neighbors purchasing multiple copies of the book to give as gifts. 

Ray was inspired to record his surroundings by iconic photographer Ansel Adams, who described photography as visual music.

“Ansel Adams described photography as, ‘The negative is equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance,” Ray said. . 

For more information about The Cullasaja, A Mountain River of Wonder, call Peter Ray at 828-828-787-1463, or email peterray1463@outlook.com.