Appalachia is a north-south region in the eastern United States, for those not from the US or unfamiliar with the term. There’s a map later in the post.
I love viewing photographic books of a region or culture. But if I want a book of Appalachian images, with a few exceptions, my choices are limited to: nature, artisans and craftsmen, and scenes of severe poverty.
My intent is not to slam those who photograph Appalachia. I love you guys. Some powerful and compelling work has been made here over the years. I’m upset at the lack of variety and repeated publications of the same subject (like barefoot children on dirt floors or what’s left of a front porch). It is not representative of the whole of Appalachia, but it is treated as such.
I live in Maryland, but I was born in the heart of Appalachia, pretty much where Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia meet. I’m writing this post from Dad’s house, not that far from where many of those images of poverty are made.
I added the “I am here” heart. (That $100,000 I spent on art school was not wasted after all!)
I can take you literally a few miles from Dad’s home, and show you scenes resembling the much-publicized poverty images. On the way, we will pass the home of a local businessman who owns a helicopter and a heliport with a cool James Bond-like sliding platform. The floor slides out from the enclosed hangar space for take-offs and landings.
You’ll see homes ranging from shacks to mansions. A rusty old truck cadaver will be found next to a new luxury car. Successful local businesses will be scattered in between businesses barely hanging on, and others boarded up and abandoned. We’ll go through high-tech corridors and no-tech corridors. It’s all Appalachia.
By the way, I’m convinced that people here pronounce “Appalachian” correctly. They live in the Appa-LATCH-en Mountains. In the early 16th century, Native Americans called the mountainous region, “Apalachen”. So if you lived there, you were considered Apa-lach-en. The entire region is called Appalachia, as in, Appa-LATCH-eh, not Appa-LAY-she-uh.
I had multiple pairs of shoes growing up here. Sometimes I even wore a pair! I even had a dirt bike and a vertical skateboard ramp. I am just as much a reflection of Appalachia as the less fortunate who can’t afford shoes, or those who can afford little gold-plated, diamond-encrusted shoes for their pets.
Put up or shut up? Fair enough. Twenty-five years ago, I left home to pursue an engineering career. If things work out as we hope, my wife, Alane, and I will move back to West Virginia in 2012. We’re not sure if the move will be permanent or temporary, but for the time I’m back here, I want to do my part in destroying the myth of Appalachia, if only to start a new one.
At times, the beauty here is better than we’ve been led to believe. Truthfully, the worst is sometimes more disturbing than any poverty poster child image. There are enough truths and half-truths in this region to take up several lifetimes of fiction and nonfiction writing or image making.
Most of the people who call this place home live somewhere between beauty and poverty. They can see both from right here. That’s life in the heart of Appalachia.
Of course I’ll use wet plate collodion. What else is there?