Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Appalachian Spring -- 2014

Roger May, fast becoming the premier photographer of West Virginia, has just set up a new project called Looking at Appalachia: 50 Years after the War on Poverty.

May's goal is to document, and assess, the depiction of Appalachia in photographs 9See image above),  or, as he puts it, "to explore the diversity of Appalachia and establish a visual counter point [to images formed by previous photographers' focus on the poorest parts of the region]."

"Drawing from a diverse population of photographers within the region, this new crowdsourced image archive will serve as a reference that is defined by its people as opposed to political legislation."

May's own work made in Appalachia has recently been featured on the Bitter Southerner blog, with the title  "A Love Letter to Appalachia," and you can find it here.

May also took part in a recent online symposium  Portraying Appalachia, sponsored by Oxford American Magazine, as a result of viewer response to Stacy Kranitz' portfolio As it Was Give(n) to Me… (see image below) which appeared in January as an entry in the Oxford American’s weekly online photography feature, Eyes on the South, curated by Jeff Rich.

The Oxford American folks said that "Reader response to [Kranitz' work] was fervent and varied."

The result of all that energy was the Symposium, which included portfolios by Kranitz, May, Rob Amberg, and Kate Fowler, all experienced photographers of Applachia.

Kranitz' work is here  (see image above).

Roger May's contribution is here. see image above).

Kate Fowler contributed a portfolio (see image above) on her work with pentecostal ministers who handle serpents as part of their worship services.

Rob Amberg contributed a portfolio of his work in the small town of Sodom Laurel,NC, here (see image below).

The writer Matthew Newton also contributed an essay, here, illustrated by photographs taken by Zoe Strauss and Ross Mantle.

What is most important in each of these entries are the discussions of their work, and of the role of the photographer in the process of making this work.

This is especially poignant in the case of Kate Fowler's work, since Mack, one of the ministers to whom she had become especially close during the course of her project, died of venom poisoning.

Fowler's discussion of her relationship with the minister who died and her understanding of herself as a photographer are worth quoting at some length:

"I feel implicated in and damaged by this tragedy.

"In many ways, I see photography as a tool for accountability. The camera has been co-opted as a weapon in activism, a tool, also, for radical interaction and reflection, and as a means to bearing witness to events that would otherwise be hidden from the mainstream gaze.

"Although photography often falls short in its depiction of war, death, life, and beauty in many forms, it does grant space for the interplay of personal and public fantasy.

"Cameras enable us photographers to experience the world through our own subjective filters, to project our personal emotions—whether sadness, terror, or joy—onto greater works of art. Also, photography itself is an act. It manipulates and alters space and relationships; it threatens and demands certain things from its subjects."

[A journalist for the Washington Post chose to photograph the dying man in his last hours.]

"As [she] shifted from her role as friend and guest to documenter and witness, the structure of events and potential outcomes became limited by her presence—and the implied presence of a greater audience. 

"Photography has this ability: it can influence events through its suggestion of a subjective viewership. As Mack moved toward death and his family navigated the trauma of the circumstances, they had to simultaneously consider the eyes and thoughts of an unpredictable audience. 

"Did this influence Mack’s reluctance to call an ambulance? If there had been no photographers present, would the lack of public accountability have meant he might have gone to the hospital and lived? I can never know the answers to these questions, but what I can know is that photography has power. 

"For nearly a century, this power has been subverted for the sake of entertainment, a form that has been veiled as “news.”  

"Should we burden photography with the responsibility of being an accurate depiction of reality? Are photography’s limitations a failure on the part of the medium, or simply a projection of the public’s desire to manipulate and interpret scenes from another life? 

"Photographs have a double consciousness; they exist within the moment they were taken and transform within the minds of viewers. 

"Photographs are mirrors; yet their reflections change as new viewers shift into frame. Once we regard these certain truths and begin to see photography as mutable, fluid, and transformative, we can understand that viewers themselves are participants in a photograph’s narrative. 

"Similarly, we can regard the significance of an invisible participant in the development of a photograph, just as Mack and his family did on the day of his death. 

"In the aftermath of this project, my work has become increasingly unstable."

All this work brings to the fore important questions about documentation vs advocacy, truth-telling vs making beautiful or arresting images, not to mention the making of art as a form of commerce vs doing right by one's subjects.

Photography in Appalachia is a great site to make these issues available for our reflection.

It has been in the news a great deal lately. We have been reminded of Appalachia both from commentary on the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson's declaration of a War on Poverty and from news coverage of the recent chemical spill  into West Virginia's Elk River.

The convergence of these two stories reminds us of the history of the American experience of poverty, and its coverage in the media, and its depiction in photography. The issues are complex; the outcomes are often disturbing.

We had a lively discussion on this blog a while back around the work of Shelby Lee Adams,  who -- depending on your point of view --  is either documenting the lives of people of grit and courage who persevere under difficult circumstances or exploiting for the entertainment of an urban elite the lives of people who from the perspective of the paying customers for Adams' work insist on being strange, eccentric, stubbornly persistent in being different from folks like you and me.

Much, although far from all, of Appalachia is located in the American South, but the relationship between Appalachia and the South of conventional narrative -- the narrative of the Southern Piedmont and coastal plain -- is complex and fraught with tension.

Southern Appalachia is where the planter aristocracy has gone, from time immemorial, to escape the heat of lowland Southern summers. So a good bit of Appalachian culture was built around catering to those folks' needs; to this day one can find in the Southern mountains traces of the most bigoted attitudes toward people of color one can find anywhere.

But Appalachia, as Daniel Sharfstein has documented in The Invisible Line, his study of the color line in American history and culture, has been a place where people of color could sometimes find refuge from the bigotry and racism of lowland folks like my ancestors in Anson County, North Carolina.

Then you have the case of West Virginia, a state created precisely so its residents could escape the defining event of Southern history.

Yet all of Appalachia shares with the rest of the South the complex history of poverty and race in America, intertwined with the even more complex history of the relationship between rural and small town life and the life of urban areas.

Add to that, the complex relationship between poverty, race, and photography. The history of American photography records as a defining moment the work of Walker Evans and other WPA photographers  during the Depression.

The subjects of their attention were the rural poor -- black and white -- of the traditional South.

One of their number, Marion Post Wolcott, made the image above in the late 1930's, outside Wadesboro, NC, the town in which I was born just a few years later.

The 1960's War on Poverty shifted our attention from the rural lowland South to Appalachia, but that was an arbitrary move, since pictures as haunting and disturbing as Wolcott's could have been made in Anson County in the 1960's, or even today, for that matter.

Nor does the chemical spill in West Virginia have only local significance, as the work of Richard Misrach in Cancer Alley in Louisiana should remind us.  I'm hoping photographers in central North Carolina are documenting carefully Duke Power's recent spilling of coal ash in the Dan River.

We have had a tradition in the USA of trading responsible care for the environment for short-term economic gain. Whether the crop is cotton, tobacco or coal, the lure of wealth has led us repeatedly to exploitation of our resources, whether environmental or human.

So its good that folks are attending to Appalachia, and especially that good photographers like Roger May, Rob Amberg, Stacy Kranitz, and Kate Fowler are engged in this project.

We'll keep you posted.

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