Rather than a list of the top ten photobooks published in 2013, I thought I’d share my favorite eleven (because, you know, not ten) photobook acquisitions of the year. Some were released this year and some have been out for a while, but are new to me. So with that, my list in no particular order:


Electric Tears and All Their Portent by Jim Mortram. Café Royal Books, 2013. Jim has a heart bigger than the English Isles and it rings true in his photographs. We can all learn a lot from him.


Twelve Nashville Waffle Houses by Tammy Mercure. TCB Press, 2013. Tammy is one of the most prolific photographers working in Appalachia and the southeast today. She’s a great person and hellabookmaker. I can’t wait to see what she has lined up for 2014.


Ping Pong ConversationsAlec Soth with Francesco Zanot. Contrasto, 2013. Less photobook and more conversation, this quickly became one of my favorite books of the year. I appreciate photographers who talk about their work (and I think it’s important to be able to talk about your own work) and Zanot creates a space for Soth to give us important background for many of his photographs (78 to be exact).


Iris Garden - stories by John Cage and photos by William Gedney. Little Brown Mushroom, 2013. It’s no secret that I’m a huge admirer of William Gedney’s photographs. Paired with writing by Cage and designed by Hans Seeger, I’ll never be able to reassemble this book the way it was put together (it’s not bound), but whatever. It’s just beautiful.


Slow Burn: A Photodocument of Centralia, Pennsylvania by Renée Jacobs. Penn State Press, 2010. I’ve wanted this book for a while now as I’ve been fascinated by the story of Centralia. When I went to Jacobs’ website to look for it, I couldn’t find it, but instead found some beautiful nudes. After some digging, I found a copy via the publisher. It’s the epitome of what I look for in a photobook about place: maps, smart layout, and a balance of photographs by the observer and text/interviews with people in the community.


Truck Stop by Marc F. Wise. University Press of Mississippi, 1995. Hat tip to Bryan Shutmaat for recommending this one. If you don’t own it, you should. I’m pretty sure an entire class could be based on this book.


Rough Road: The Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project (1975-1977) by Bill Burke, Bob Hower, and Ted Wathen. Quadrant Incorporated, 2011. Thanks to John Edwin Mason for bringing this fantastic project to my attention. I called Ted Wathen last week and ordered this amazing little book. I’m going to be chasing Bill Burke in 2014.


The Quiet Sickness: A Photographic Chronicle of Hazardous Work in America by Earl Dotter. American Industrial Hygiene Association, 1998. I’ll thank Rob Amberg for introducing me to Earl Dotter’s work. After I sat with this book for a while, I began to see Dotter’s work everywhere. Powerful and poetic.


APPALACHIA USA by Builder Levy. David R. Godine, 2013. I’ve admired Builder’s work for years now. He recently sent me his latest book, APPALACHIA USA, with a beautiful inscription. The miner pictured on the cover, Toby Moore, worked at the same mines (I believe) as my grandfather, Cecil May. I can’t recommend this book enough.


Mitakuye Oyasin by Aaron Huey. Radius Books, 2013. Beautifully printed, designed, and bound. Be prepared to have your eyes opened to a part of America few people like to talk about, much less see. I can’t thank Huey enough for guiding us there and reminding us that this country was founded at a tremendous cost, one that’s still being exacted.


Excerpts from Silver Meadows by Todd Hido. Nazraeli Press, 2013. Thanks to Susan Worsham for convincing me to get THE LAST available copy at LOOK3 earlier this year and for standing in line with me to get Hido to sign it.



I spent some time playing around with making a couple of books this weekend. I made this one as a Christmas present for my in-laws. I took a walk on a crisp winter morning on their property in Elgood, West Virginia and made a series of square photographs (using the Fuji X-Pro1′s in-camera setting). There’s something especially beautiful about walking their holler this time of year. I chose nine photographs to print (using Inkpress Media duo matte 80) along with a quote from one of my favorite writers, Breece D’J Pancake. This was my first attempt at binding a book and I can’t believe how much fun it was. It measures 5″ x 7″. I made a second one using 1/32″ birch plywood for the cover, not realizing it wasn’t really flexible enough to practically use as a book cover. I’ll chalk that one up to inexperience…





“I’m going to come back to West Virginia when this is over. There’s something ancient and deeply-rooted in my soul. I like to think that I have left my ghost up one of those hollows, and I’ll never really be able to leave for good until I find it. And I don’t want to look for it, because I might find it and have to leave.” – from a letter to his mother Helen Pancake that Breece wrote in Charlottesville, where he was studying writing.


This little book measures 2.5″ x 3.5″ and is based on a new series I’m working on called Miner Pride. It’s a crudely made book, printed on a color laser printer and I made the cover from an Ilford paper box top cut to size. I used double-sided tape to hold the pages together and a strip of masking tape to bind the covers. Such simple materials yielded an incredible amount of fun. That’s what it’s all about, right? (I also made a little video here.)





UPDATE: We have a winner!

Do you know a high school or college student who could use some freebies? I have 11 CF cards (from 4GB to 16GB), a SanDisk CF card reader, and a Think Tank Pixel Pocket Rocket card wallet that I’d like to give them. All the gear has been used, but well taken care of. I simply don’t need them anymore and I’d like to share them with someone who needs them. What’s the catch? There isn’t one.

The rules are simple:
1) Nominate a student who could use these by midnight EST on Tuesday, 10 December 2013. (Sorry, you can’t nominate yourself.)
2) Simply comment on this post and include the student’s name, school, and a couple of sentences about why you feel he or she should get these.
3) I’ll announce the winner here and via social media on Wednesday, 11 December 2013 by noon EST.



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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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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I’d like to do with my life. More specifically, what I would do if I could do anything. You know, the whole “if you won the lottery, what would you do?” line of thinking. It’s hard for me to think about grand ideas or what-ifs like that because I’m too much of a realist, a more practical man. Nonetheless, I dream and I’ve been known to stay stuck on a dream or two. This has left me with more questions than answers, but the answers I’ve come up with have have been pretty eye-opening.

In short, I want to start a documentary arts center in Williamson, West Virginia. I see a space that combines the likes of Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies continuing education curriculum, Whitesburg, Kentucky’s Appalshop offerings, and the recently launched interactive documentary, Hollow, directed by Elaine McMillion.

I even know the building I want to use.

I spend a good deal of time in towns like Williamson, Welch, and Bluefield. These towns have incredibly rich histories and you’ll find no shortage of available spaces, often historic buildings, that would be the perfect location for something like this.

I envision a space where high school kids can come to learn about photography, filmmaking, or recording audio. I think about members of the community gathering to have their old family photographs scanned and archived. I hear the stories shared from longstanding members of long forgotten places, anxious to tell their stories, to be heard, to not be forgotten. I see folks interested in making pictures, young and old alike, gathered for workshops, for camera walks, learning and growing together.

I said a while back in a radio interview that the people of Appalachia have had a lot taken from them and that I don’t just want to be another taker in a long line of takers. I’d like to give something back to the place that has given me so much, that’s molded me into who I am. There are so many stories and records that should be recorded and shared, not just in Appalachia, but everywhere. I’m not naive enough to think that I could help everywhere, but I know that my little corner of the world, Mingo County, West Virginia, I could help there. I know that’s a place where I can give back.

So, I don’t even know who to make this dream a reality, but I’d imagine it going something like this. It’s starts with this idea and it grows from there. We’d hold community interest meetings to gauge how folk felt about something like this and how they’d like to see a space and program like this utilized. I’d talk to someone who talks to someone else who knows someone that has a space they’d be willing to offer for a center like this to exist. Grants would be written, connections made, resources made available, and things would begin to take shape. We’d start with a couple of computers, external hard drives, a scanner, and some basic camera equipment.

Maybe it starts with me offering small weekend workshops in Williamson, making the drive up from Raleigh that I’m so familiar with, collaborating with folks and sharing their work in community exhibits. Maybe it starts in a coffee shop.

One of the things I most appreciate about Hollow is the notion that members of the community get to tell their own stories and the story of their place. What a novel concept, right? I mean, who ever thought of “allowing” a group of people to rewrite the narrative about their own place? I’m being sarcastic, of course. Empowering people to tell their own story, enabling them through the use of tools to amplify their voice, and listening. Yes, listening. I think there’s a real opportunity to apply the Hollow model throughout Appalachia.

Regarding work made in Appalachia, there’s often very little listening and very little community organizing going on and it’s been rare that any of it was long-term. Historically, there have been outsiders who drop in only to make pictures of what they wanted to see, pictures that ultimately defined Appalachia to the rest of America: hungry children, broken down cars and shacks, and extreme poverty. Like the coal and timber harvested from the region, pictures were takenoften out of context, and used for someone else’s benefit and profit. What does it say to a culture when time and time again they are taken advantage of?

What is their worth?

What is the value of their community?

Who will hear their voice and preserve their stories?

A big influence for my thinking about this process is Huey Perry’s 1972 book They’ll Cut Off Your Project: A Mingo County Chronicle. Perry, a high school teacher in Mingo County during the early years of the War on Poverty, was hired to be the executive director of the newly created Economic Opportunity Commission in 1965. The book offers an amazing account of politics and community organizing in southern West Virginia.

A couple of passages stand out:

Here, Perry talks about the importance of community organizing before writing proposals for grant money from the Office of Economic Opportunity. (It’s important to note that neighboring McDowell County had already submitted an application for a million dollar federal grant before the President had signed the bill or appointed Sargent Shriver to head the OEO, so Mingo County officials were pushing Perry to get a proposal submitted.)

“A community action group would consist of low income citizens organized together to identify their problems and work toward possible solutions. I feel it necessary that we take our time and build an organization that involves the poor in the decisions as to what types of programs they want, rather than to sit down and write up what we think they want. If we do it in the latter way, we will be no different from the welfare department or any other old-line agency that imposes its ideas upon the people.”

Perry goes on:

“If we can change the conditions in Mingo County, perhaps the whole state of West Virginia can be changed. We should work to make this a model for the rest of Appalachia to follow. You know, we are not that much different from eastern Kentucky and other areas of Appalachia.”

I also love this quote from Guy and Candie Carawan’s 1975 book, Voices From the Mountains, by Mike Clark:

“For those of us who are from Appalachia, who love it, and who want to remain, these people offer valuable insights and feelings about what it means to be a mountaineer in a modern technological society. And for the reader who may not live in Appalachia, there is much to be learned here from present attempts within the mountains to build a more democratic society. Welcome to the developing Free State of Appalachia.”

You may say I’m a dreamer…

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