The Appalachian Paradox – The Documentary Images of Bertien van Manen, Hannah Modigh and Alessandro Zambardino
Moving countries necessarily involves adjusting to a new life, a new community, a new collective memory. When I moved from Amsterdam to Manchester, I was confronted with a particular bit of British history I was not familiar with at all. This was the 1984-1985 miners’ strike. It was a pivotal moment in the dismantling of a once all-important industry in the north of England by the Thatcher government. Many inhabitants of the north of England will be familiar with Don McPhee’s photograph of a coal miner up in the face of a policeman, their noses practically touching, the threat of imminent violence all too apparent. The dismantling of the mining industry has left a large and gaping hole in the social, cultural and actual landscape. Coal mining and its disappearance continues to play an important role in the visual and cultural collective memory in the north of England, as is evident from the many different and diverse photo projects still dealing with the topic. 1
Perhaps as a result of my personal experience I have recently become very intrigued by the portrayal of Appalachia throughout the history of photography. My interest was attracted at first by recent publications such as Hillbilly Heroin, Honey by the upcoming Swedish photographer Hannah Modigh (2010), Moonshine by the established Dutch practitioner Bertien van Manen (2014), and Climate Ground Zero by emerging Italian talent Alessandro Zambardino in Foam Magazine Issue 32 (2012). I find it curious that even though all three projects ostensibly set out to depict coal mining communities in Appalachia, very few images in these publications show actual coal mines or miners. Instead many photographs focus on picturesque outdoor scenes, chaotic domestic interiors, and family ties. The titles given to the projects define and confine the subjects portrayed in a very specific way.
Investigating further, I discovered that the photographic portrayal of Appalachia is a contentious issue, as argued by Roger May and Nate May. The former May is a photographer working in the area but also writes critically about other practitioners looking at the region, including Van Manen, Michael Shirwin and Michael Gumpert. The latter May is a composer, pianist and educator, but the documentation of the region is an issue close to his heart. He argues that Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty campaign established a certain image of the region, a visual cliché perpetuated by practitioners such as Stacy Kranitz.2
“However noble the goal of the FSA photographers may have been, it may be the case that the photographic imagery created has been so widely published, has become so iconic and so pervasive, that alternative (his)stories or imagery of the region have become nigh impossible.”
Triggered by Nate May’s statement that every stereotype has two layers as well as his point about the War on Poverty campaign, and fascinated by the recent portrayal of the region by the photographers mentioned above, I plan to take a closer look at the work done by a number of practitioners on Appalachia since the 1930s. I take this as a starting point as it can be argued that the photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration, set up by the US government to tackle rural poverty during the Depression, have created an overriding but also a very particular image of the Appalachian region and its inhabitants. Especially the portrait painted by James Agee and Walker Evans in their seminal publication Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) remains hugely influential to this day.3
However noble the goal of the FSA photographers may have been, it may be the case that the photographic imagery created has been so widely published, has become so iconic and so pervasive, that alternative (his)stories or imagery of the region have become nigh impossible. 4
1 To name but a few examples: Chris Killip – Sea Coal, Graeme Rigby – Coke to Coke, Sirka-Liisa Konttinen – Coal Coast, John Davies – Durham Coalfield, Bruce Rae – Easington: A Mining Village, Keith Pattison – Easington: August 1984, Richard Grassick – Post Industrial, Mik Critchlow – Sea Coalers. Many of these projects have been initiated and funded by the Amber/Side collective based in Newcastle.
2 It is my impression that Appalachia seems to conjure up very strict ideas concerning its geographical boundaries, but also its social and cultural characteristics. In this sense it has much in common with ‘The North’ of England, as exemplified by the publications The North (and Almost Everything In It) by Paul Morley and The North by John Bulmer, and the television series Our Friends from the North (BBC, 1996).
3 This thesis forms the starting point of my Research Fellowship at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona.
4 I have touched upon a similar issue in my discussion of the photographic portrayal of Detroit by contemporary photographers here. It is interesting to note that key policies to tackle the Depression, such as providing employment and modernising the country by commissioning public works and setting up a modern infrastructure, were given little photographic attention at the time. Instead, all effort went into documenting rural poverty as a way to convince other Americans about the righteousness of the New Deal policies and the rural poor as worthy recipients of state help. See also my article on Wouter Cool’s photographs here.