SEEN AND FELT: Appalachia, 2012

Having grown up during the years when the United States of America was a manufacturing giant, it was important for me to reconcile those early memories with the reality of the present day–to see what this region, known to have fallen on hard times, looks like now.

This is what compelled me during the summer of 2012 to drive through rural Appalachia and the Rust Belt: parts of West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio. I stayed in campgrounds; slept in the back seat of my 90′s rust bucket.

The trip began in the small Allegheny River town of Natrona in Western Pennsylvania and ended along the Ohio River in the even smaller mill town of Mingo Junction, Ohio. This 65-mile distance — according to a map — took 4,000 miles to cover. There was some crisscrossing back and forth as I followed suggestions of local folks met along the way who recommended places that evoked a perceptible connection between the past and present and which they believed important for an outsider to see. Each encounter was detailed in the journal I kept during the trip.

With Tri-X black-and-white film in my Leica rangefinder camera, I walked around the huge shuttered steel mills, along train tracks and through deserted downtowns with ghost-like streets that had once been thriving.

I didn’t approach this project as a photojournalist, choosing instead  to photograph spontaneously, to allow myself to be seduced by a scene’s visual aspects and its impact on my gut.

Personal work has always been more about the journey and less the destination. It’s about discovery, needing only to press the shutter at moments when I’m moved by what I’m seeing. In literary terms, it is about creating an “objective correlative” between the inner and outer, the seen and felt.

My work is known for its very formal compositions: lines, angles, dividing what is within the frame. It is known equally for its powerful emotions: feelings of isolation and melancholy. Taken together, these seemingly disparate elements create photographs that are direct yet poetic, mysterious, quiet and understated.

As the journey was nearing its end, I couldn’t help but think about the places seen and photographed: towns, main streets, mills, and the ever-present utility wires and clouds. The gradual and steady accumulation of having connected with these “things” informed my ideas about present-day Appalachia. The trip increasingly felt like a 6-week eulogy to what no longer existed and echoed what poet William Carlos Williams’ believed: “no ideas but in things!”

More of Susan May Tell’s work can be seen here.

All photographs and essay “SEEN AND FELT: Appalachia, 2012” © Susan May Tell. All Rights Reserved.
1. Appalachian Mist, Altoona Pennsylvania, 2012
2. Weirton Steel Mill, Weirton, West Virginia, 2012
3. Main Street, Mingo Junction, Ohio, 2012
4. Time Out, Wheeling, West Virginia, 2012
5. Replica, Elkins, West Virginia, 2012
6. Mama’s Kitchen, Elkins, West Virginia, 2012
7. The Candy Store, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, 2012
8. Spirit of Brownton, Brownton, West Virginia, 2012
9. S & P Carpet, Mingo Junction, Ohio, 2012
10. Odd-job Man, Mingo Junction, Ohio, 2012
11. Steel Mill Memories, Steubenville, Ohio, 2012
12. Wilkinsburg Reflected, Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, 2012
13. Appalachia Crossroads, Altoona, Pennsylvania, 2012
14. Union Local Flag, Belmont, Ohio, 2012
15. Universal Appliance Parts, Wheeling, West Virginia, 2012

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8 Responses to Looking at Appalachia | Susan May Tell

  1. I really enjoyed this very impressive series of images.

    There’s often a temptation I’ve noted amongst some photographers to be overly ‘arty’ – (over)using the rule-of-thirds – and (where I live) for them to avoid ‘the power line’ in their images, reducing the landscape to something other than a place where people live, work, communicate, instead trying to impose their notions of ‘wilderness’ or ‘undeveloped’ onto it.

    This work is refreshing for avoiding both these conceits. The head-on frame-centre composition of many of these images makes me feel what the photographer felt – “THIS caught my eye – look” and “this is important- see!”. No ambiguity.

    A famous (in my country) painter who wrote the introduction to a book I photographed some years ago, on remote Scottish islands, remarked that he was surprised by my strong and prominent use of telegraph and power lines in my images. He admitted that he had previously ‘painted them out’ in his own work, but seeing my use of them had made him realize he’d omitted a hugely important compositional element, one that had about it hints of political, industrial and social significance.

    These are fine images that would reward closer inspection (wish I could get them bigger!).

  2. Fantastic work and narrative, Susan. Thanks for sharing. ~ Mark

  3. John, Very much appreciate your taking the time to comment and that these Appalachia images made you ‘feel’ as well as ‘see.’ That means a lot to me.

    I also appreciate Roger May featuring this work on his important blog.

    Thanks to both of you!


  4. Mark (JerseyStyle) – Thank you for taking the time to comment! When putting work “out there” it is very appreciated when the viewers/audience let us know the work has been received. Thanks!! Susan

  5. viviane moos says:

    Susan, Even though I have the seen this work a couple of times – compliments again! both the words and the images are so good, and yes, I love your new favorite. What a successful trip – in every way and what a terrific blog publication.

    • Viviane,

      Thank you!

      Since most readers won’t know, the “new favorite” is “Wilkinsburg Reflected.” There are quite a few additional photographs, not yet shown, that will make its way into this series.

      The trip was very meaningful in very many ways!

      It is an honor for it to be featured on this, as you put it, “terrific blog publication.”

  6. Harry Wilks says:

    Susan, It’s nice to take another look at your work. I smiled when I noticed where you hid your camera for the restaurant picture. You sneaky person, and it really works well in that shot.

    • Harry,

      Appreciate your looking and posting!

      The woman was very much alone in her thoughts, intent and engrossed; she never even looked at/noticed my camera or me. The composition seemed appropriate to reinforce her isolation, physical and emotional.

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