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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Jeff Rich is a photographer and educator based in Iowa City, Iowa. His long form project, The Watershed Project, first caught my attention a few years back when I learned of it via Photolucida. Rich also curates the ‘Eyes on the South’ photo blog for Oxford American. We spoke a while back about featuring some of his work here and he was also kind enough to answer a few questions in the midst of a busy summer. Thanks, Jeff!

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Clearly the issues addressed in Watershed aren’t unique to Appalachia. Nationwide, worldwide, people are working to protect watersheds from issues like runoff and loss of habitat. Working specifically in Appalachia though, did you face unique cultural or environmental challenges?

Working in Western North Carolina was the first time I had really researched and documented issues like these. However throughout my research I have learned a lot about watershed management. As you say most of the issues faced here are the same in every watershed.  I intentionally focused on these problems because in many ways the French Broad can be seen as a microcosm of much larger watersheds, like the Mississippi River Basin.  As for being unique, the Central Appalachian mountains are one of the most biologically diverse regions in the country. Culturally there were no challenges, I found that people in the watershed were very interested in keeping the river clean and livable.

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I know as a kid growing up on the Tug River, which separates West Virginia and Kentucky, I always saw polluted creeks and streams. Part of what I saw were remnants from flooding and the trash left behind, but it wasn’t uncommon to see folks just pitch their garbage over the riverbank. It was sort of like the concept of throwing something “away” meant pitching it into the river and letting the river carry it away. Did you see any evidence of this mindset in the areas of North Carolina and Tennessee you worked in? I’m just curious as to whether it’s more of an isolated mode of thinking or if it’s more common than that in mountain communities.

One of the reasons I started this project was to document the visual effects of this mindset that the river is our toilet. Evidence of this can be found throughout the region, and when I first started this work I focused on that pretty heavily. I found that it is a problem throughout the region, whether it is in the big cities or smaller communities. However, on the flip side of this is the progress that this area has made over the past 40 years. The French Broad River is much cleaner now than it ever was in the past 60 years. I find that people are much more aware of what is upstream of them because of pollution in their towns. Consequently residents awareness is much higher now of what is downstream.

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You’re work reminds me that it isn’t just the mountains that make Appalachia what it is, it’s also the water. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between the two and how your work incorporates these visual elements?

I’ve heard it said that the French Broad River is the third oldest river in the world, and that it is even older than the Appalachian mountains that surround it. With the birth of the Appalachians at about 480 Million years ago, I find this geologic history inspiring. One of the things I wanted to do with this work was really document this moment in this history. How do we effect this landscape which has a lifespan that really dwarfs our own history? Especially in post-industrial terms, in this time-scale we have only just started to effect the landscape in significant ways. Because of the topography of the area, many of the cities have water running right through the middle of town. These rivers have formed the valleys where most people live. I found that some of the towns embraced the rivers and creeks, while others ignored them. This relationship with the rivers forms the visual base of much of my work in the watershed.

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There’s an unmistakable beauty in your work, which requires the viewer’s gaze. The image of the Blue Ridge Paper Mill comes to mind. Can you talk a little about what’s going on (i.e. there’s this really arresting photograph, bathed in perfect light, rich color, yet it’s a paper mill releasing all sorts of chemicals into the air and no doubt the water)? This is something you’re putting in front of the viewer and asking them to deal with right?

Yes, absolutely. I want the viewer to have a similar experience to my own when I first encountered the mill. I experienced what I have heard called an industrial sublime. In other words I was awestruck in the face of industry.  I find this fine-line between beauty and the environmental reality of the situation is a fascinating thing to document.

I returned several times to photograph the plant over the span of about three years and each time I am amazed at how the mill dominates the valley. Each time I returned to the mill to photograph it, I ended up with images that described the appearance and size of the mill, but I never captured an image that portrayed the effect of the mill on the surrounding landscape. The effect of the mill was what I was most interested in, since this mill was one of the largest polluters of the area for most of the 20th century. The Pigeon River which runs right through the center of the plant was used for all of their waste water and as a result was heavily polluted, negatively effecting downstream communities all the way to Newport, Tennessee.

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How do you see the final project being put out into the world? Three separate books under the umbrella of Watershed?

Yes, the Watershed project is ongoing. I am following the water all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico, via the Tennessee River, and finally the Mississippi River. The ultimate goal is to have the work in three separate books. Currently I’m documenting the TVA’s (Tennessee Valley Authority) effect on the region. The TVA was the largest New Deal project and had an enormous impact during the twentieth century. I have also started documenting flood control measures taken by the Army Corps of engineers along the Mississippi River.

I have created an interactive project website that maps the rivers and photographs and gives a bit more background information. which can be seen at watershed-project.com.

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Most of the environmental issue portraiture about Appalachia that exists today is about mountaintop removal coal mining. I don’t see your work as a break from that, but rather a supplement to raising awareness of what’s going on in these ancient hills. Can you talk about that?

I think that mountaintop removal is one of the biggest issues facing the region. Doing a project like Watershed is definitely about raising awareness, not only of current exploitation of resources, but also showing what’s at stake.  I think that’s what is most important to me, showing the problems, but also showing what we could possibly lose in the process.

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1. Blue Ridge Paper Mill, Pigeon River, Canton, North Carolina, 2008
2. Bridge Reconstruction – The French Broad River, Marshall, North Carolina, 2006
3. River Clean-up on the Swannanoa River, Asheville, North Carolina, 2007
4. Cement Plant, Asheville, North Carolina, 2006
5. Benjamin and Katie, French Broad River, Asheville, North Carolina, 2008
6. Garden, North Toe River, Spruce Pine, North Carolina, 2007
7. Foam from upriver pollution, Pigeon River, Tennessee, 2007
8. Crossing, Swannanoa River, Asheville, North Carolina, 2005
9. Toe River, North Carolina, 2007
10. Mitch and Mike, The French Broad River, Stackhouse, North Carolina, 2007
11. Brown family farm, North Fork of the Swannanoa River, Black Mountain, North Carolina, 2007
12. Ski Lift, Little Pigeon River, Gatlinburg, Tennessee, 2007
13. Barber Orchard Superfund Site, Waynesville, North Carolina, 2007
14. TVA South Holston Dam, South Fork Holston River, 2012
15. South Holston Weir Dam, South Fork Holston River, 2012
16. Calderwood Lake, Little Tennessee River, Vonore, Tennessee, 2012
17. Road to Nowhere (North Shore Road) Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee, 2012
18. Fort Patrick Henry Dam, South Fork Holston River, Kingsport, Tennessee, 2012
19. Forest Fire and I-24, Mill Creek, Whiteside, Tennessee, 2011
20. Fish Kill, Cumberland Fossil Plant, Lake Barkley, Cumberland City, 2011
21. Raccoon Mountain Pumped Storage Plant Outflow, Tennessee River, Chattanooga, Tennessee, 2010
22. Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, Tennessee River, 2010
23. Glenn on his dock, Coal Fly Ash Spill, Kingston, Tennessee, 2009
24. Coal Fly Ash Spill, Harriman, Tennessee, 2009

All photographs © Jeff Rich.

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I can thank Instagram and cell phone photography for leading me to the beautiful analog work of Hunter Barnes. I saw an image of Barnes’ book, A Testimony of Serpent Handling, in someone’s feed, Googled the photographer, and landed smack dab in the middle of this intimate and quiet work. I reached out to Barnes and asked if he’d be interested in collaborating on something for Looking at Appalachia and he agreed.

Barnes’ project statement echoes many of the thoughts and emotions I’ve been unable to express in my own writing. Coupled with the photographs, I sensed an honesty that’s hard to prop up for any length of time without being authentic. My hour-long conversation with him reinforced my initial sentiment; he’s genuine.

From the project statement: “Where there is love and unity there is power. Feeling this is what has drawn me to document this in true belief. Within their church a clear path knowing ultimate freedom and victory over all things. Light felt so pure that shines beyond all. At a pivotal point in a new time proclaiming the word that has not changed. As to live what they know is undoubtedly right and not to tempt in disbelief. An old way for so many is passing, as lived strong for those who choose this way. Walking all verses and chapters of the King James Version to save a soul and enter the pearly gates. In these West Virginia mountains live and breathe the anointing, within the people who do not stray. Children of God who rise above in the ways of old. A family of faith who so graciously invited me in. Said to me of handling serpents, like all true love, the journey is one better felt than told.”

A little over two years ago, Barnes ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for his book about the serpent-handling churches and faith community around Jolo, West Virginia. Barnes speaks fondly of his time in McDowell County, referring to the work as a family album, something he made with them. Pastor Mack “Randy” Wolford and Pastor Harvey Payne of the Jolo Church and his extended family set Barnes up with a camper, going so far as running a water hose and extension cords to it to make him more comfortable during his stay. (Wolford passed away from a rattlesnake bite in May 2012.)

What we see in these photographs, in these moments, is access to intimacy. Barnes noted that the only real thing Wolford expected in return was accuracy. He wanted to spread the word about his faith, but he wanted it done accurately. By all accounts, Barnes has done just that. As a native West Virginian, I’m often skeptical of anyone – either insider or outsider – who wants to photograph this practice. I even question my own motivations. What can I show that hasn’t already been shown? I’ve yet to work that out in my practice, but Barnes has managed to celebrate this act of faith and obedience in a manner that is quiet, honest, and intensely beautiful.

All photographs © Hunter Barnes.

Tammy Mercure is quite possibly the most prolific photographer working in Appalachia today. There. I said it.

Don’t believe me? Bookmark her Tumblr, track it for a week or two, then email me to tell me you owe me a beer. It’s dizzying how often she shoots and posts (3 or 4 days a week by her own estimation). It isn’t just with reckless abandon that she puts her work out there. It’s good work. Solid. But, see for yourself.

I’ve admired Mercure’s (pronounced like ‘mercury’ without the ‘y’) for a few years now and finally had a chance to meet her at this year’s LOOK3 – Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville, VA. It was like meeting a long lost relative for the first time. We talked about place, family, and growing up. We also talked about making pictures, photobooks, self-publishing (be sure to check out TCB Press), and a host of other things (including our mutual appreciation of David Mayfield). I shared my idea of possibly starting a ‘Looking at Appalachia’ podcast and she was more than encouraging. More on that later.

I asked Mercure to share some of her work with us and she agreed, despite being in the middle of relocating from Bristol to Nashville.

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All photographs © Tammy Mercure.

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