APPALACHIA - SUGGESTED READING
Editor’s note: There’s probably an image in your head of Appalachia. It’s probably black and white. Maybe it involves gaunt children and hollow-eyed women on a sagging porchfront. Maybe it’s the sharp, dirty cheekbones of a miner. Those visual tropes are the afterimages of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty - photographs produced with the admirable goal of raising living standards, but imprinting a legacy of stereotypes.
Fifty years later, Roger May and an incredible group of activists, historians, photographers, and writers are working to “explore the diversity of Appalachia and establish a visual counter point” to the soot and apron strings of cliché. The project is called Looking at Appalachia and it aims to be a “crowdsourced image archive…defined by its people as opposed to political legislation.” We heartily encourage you to check out the site and submit your own work. The region is broader than you probably think—Appalachia stretches from counties in Mississippi to New York and the project seeks to cover that span.
Roger has also been a contributor to The American Guide and always seems to be reading something amazing, so we asked if he’d put together an Appalachian bookshelf. The results follow, and we can’t wait to get reading…
What Was True: The Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney
Edited by Margaret Sartor, coedited by Geoff Dyer.
Published by the Center for Documentary Studies in association with W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
Hardcover, 144 pages. ISBN 0393048241.
This is without a doubt my all-time favorite photobook about Appalachia. However, it should be noted that isn’t just an Appalachian photobook. It includes Gedney’s work from India, New York, and San Francisco as well as excerpts from his notebooks and journals. In fact, only one chapter is dedicated to his Kentucky work. Gedney’s quiet, poetic images from eastern Kentucky have taken hold of me in a way no other photographs from the region have. Filled with grace, dignity, and the seemingly intimate connection as one of the family, Gedney’s photographs offer such complexity and richness that it’s hard to not want to emulate his work there. I’ve spent hours upon hours poring over the Gedney archives at Duke’s Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscripts Library and I never cease to be amazed at what I find after looking again. If you can get your hands of a copy of this book, I highly recommend it.
Appalachia: A Self-Portrait
Edited by Wendy Ewald, foreword by Robert Coles, text by Loyal Jones.
Published by Gnomon Press for Appalshop, 1979.
Softcover, 100 pages. ISBN 0917788206.
Shelby Lee Adams recommend this photobook to me a couple of years ago. Comprised of work by Lyn Adams, Shelby Lee Adams, Robert Cooper, Earl Dotter, Will Endres, Wendy Ewald, and Linda Mansberger, the group was awarded an NEA grant in 1976. The Mountain Photography Workshop as they were called, worked to cover specific area of Appalachia over the course of a year, meeting every couple of months to talk about the work they’d done. In the end, they produced this wonderful book. Coupled with rich text, the photographs show powerful work which many of these photographers have become known for. Copies are still available.
Rough Road: The Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project 1975-1977
Photographs by Bill Burke, Bob Hower, and Ted Wathen.
Published by Quadrant Incorporated, 2011.
Softcover, 42 pages. ISBN 9780615533605.
I only learned of this book last year, but it quickly became one of my favorite Appalachian photobooks. Beautifully edited and designed, this catalog was printed to accompany an exhibit at the Frazier History Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. This is simply a must-have for your Appalachia photobook collection. Though this project commenced the year I was born, the photographs are strikingly familiar to me. I kept waiting to see a family member or a house I recognized. It’s full of striking pictures, quiet moments, and an earnestness to return home. I can’t recommend it enough. The project’s website is here.
Slow Burn: A Photodocument of Centralia, Pennsylvania
Photographs by Renée Jacobs, introduction by Margaret O. Kirk.
Published by Keystone Books, Penn State Paperback, 2010 (second edition). First edition, 1986.
Softcover, 176 pages. ISBN 9780271036816.
This is everything that’s right with long form documentary projects. Depth, detail, and a fierce commitment to community make this another must-have for your collection. As someone who can relate to the impact of coal disasters on my community, I found this book to be incredibly well done, full of listening and quiet seeing. I’m happy to say that I’m working with Renée to find a home for her Centralia archive: contact sheets, prints, notes, cassette tapes, and more.
Images of Appalachian Coalfields
Photographs by Builder Levy, introduction by Helen Matthews Lewis, foreword by Cornell Capa.
Published by Temple University Press, 1989.
Hardcover, 144 pages. ISBN 0877225885.
A classic Appalachian photobook, Builder Levy’s first book has had a home on my bookshelf for quite a while. To date, I have given away no fewer than four copies of this book. Every time I find a used copy, I buy it and put it on my shelf until I find the right time to send it to a photographer I want to share it with. Helen Matthews Lewis writes a beautiful introduction to this most important body of work. Levy is a gracious, passionate photographer and someone I’ve come to call a friend over the years. His latest book, APPALACHIA USA is easy thumbs up for your collection, too.
Sodom Laurel Album
Photographs by Rob Amberg,
Published by Lyndhurst Books, the University of North Carolina Press in association with the Center for Documentary Studies, 2002.
Hardcover, 192 pages. ISBN 0807827428.
It’ll be hard for me to keep this brief. I’ll start by saying that if you don’t have a single Appalachian photobook, start with Rob Amberg’s first book, Sodom Laurel Album. It is the quintessential photobook of Appalachia and one you should definitely own. Amberg’s humanity and spirit pack this book full of photographs and text that take you smack-dab in the middle of Madison County, North Carolina. This work is community, plain and simple. This is the epitome of heart work, what I try to emulate in my own photographic practice. I’m still trying to convince Rob to adopt me. You should adopt this book.
Photographs by Steve Lehman, film by Rory Kennedy, foreword by Robert Coles.
Published by Bullfinch Press, 1999.
Hardcover, 128 pages. ISBN 0821226312.
This book is a companion volume to the 90-minute HBO documentary directed and produced by Rory Kennedy. Filled with stark images of poverty, there exists a poignant beauty in the tangible book. From Robert Coles’ foreword, “The further hope, of course, is that the rest of us take notice of Appalachia, that we become thereby connected in mind and heart to a people both proud and vulnerable, who are at a distinct remove from us, even as they salute the same flag we honor, speak the same language we favor.” This photobook is hard to take in at times, but necessary for the greater journey of looking at Appalachia.
They’ll Cut Off Your Project: A Mingo County Chronicle
By Huey Perry.
Published by Praeger Publishers, 1972.
Hardcover, 256 pages. ISBN 1933202793 (2011 edition).
Set in my home county of Mingo, this book is a fascinating look into the history of community organizing and political corruption in the county. Huey Perry writes about the early years of the Office of Economic Opportunity in Mingo County in great detail, revealing his true nature as a storyteller and organizer. Perry fought to take poverty and government corruption head on, often placing himself in danger, to give voice to those without. This story isn’t unique to Mingo County, but it’s a great read and gives the reader an idea of what folks in the hills and hollers of Appalachia were up against and continue to struggle with today.
Appalachia in the Sixties: Decade of Reawakening
Edited by David S. Walls and John B. Stephenson.
Published by the University Press of Kentucky, 1972.
Softcover, 261 pages. ISBN 0813101352.
A fine collection of writing about coal, politics, poverty, environmental destruction, and community organizing. There are glimmers of hope throughout, however it’s also frustrating to hear the same ideas and programs being talked about 50 years later with so few results. This books is an important historical resource for those trying to understand where Appalachia has come from since the 60’s and will hopefully spark some fresh ideas for the future.
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West Virginia Guide Roger May is a proud Appalachian and documentary photographer currently living in Raleigh, North Carolina, but born and raised in the Tug Valley region of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. He’s currently enrolled in the Certificate in Documentary Arts program at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, where he’s also a part time instructor. Find him on Twitter at walkyourcamera and keep up with his writing and photography at walkyourcamera.com.