Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Aaron Blum, or the Problem of West Virginia
The West Virginia-based photographer Aaron Blum is currently featured on Joerg Colberg's blog Conscientious with links to a fascinating portfolio of work called Born and Raised: Reflections of a World Set Aside, about the experience of living in West Virginia.
I highly recommend having a look at this work. It is strong work, and I am grateful to Joerg for bringing it to our attention.
Blum's work -- along with the way Blum talks about it -- raises questions of identity similar to questions one could raise about Florida or west Texas, in relationship to the American South.
Blum thinks of himself as living in a distinctive region of the country, in part definable as Appalachia.
There is of course lots of Appalachia in the South, and it has a distinctive cultural character that contributes to our overall identity as Southerners.
One can hardly imagine, for example, today's South without the music of Appalachia, without bluegrass or without Nashville or Memphis, where the music of Appalachia met the music of the Mississippi Delta.
There is also the issue of how a region is viewed.
Blum writes, on his website, that "Outsiders have long fictionalized the narrative surrounding Appalachia. As a resident of West Virginia I have always been aware of the views others hold of my home, and they have guided me to create my own version of life in the hills. My Appalachia is a granulated depiction based on the false impressions of others, my idealizations and personal experiences."
Blum also thinks of West Virginia as a land where "Light plays an important role," a place where a "warm southern sun creates a glow that pours over the mountains, rivers and forests creating long shadows, dark recesses and gray mists that blanket the landscape."
A warm southern sun -- Blum's sense of identity as a West Virginia photographer looks eastward to Virginia and southward, toward Kentucky and Tennessee and North Carolina. He is thinking of himself as a Southern photographer, or at least a photographer of the South.
Part of the purpose of an Artist's Statement is to direct the viewer's attention, to take a shot at establishing the terms of the conversation that will commence about one's work.
For Blum, the light of a southern sun has a "unique quality" that "is inherent to the hills and provides a catalyst to the imagination- a backdrop that becomes both magnificent and eerie. It is its own character within my story of Appalachia."
This brings us to the question of identity, especially of a Southern identity. Is it the light? Or the history?
When I set up this blog, I gambled on history, by deliberately including the states of the old Confederacy, even though I knew that subsequent events had given to places like Florida and west Texas an identity and a culture significantly different from the southeastern states.
West Virginia was created to have a history different from the history of Virginia at the defining moment of Southern history, so I've not regarded it as a Southern state.
I wonder what our friends over at SXSE think about this question.