When I look at this photograph, I try to make a mental list of all the filters I might be applying to it, whether intentional or not, and the ways of seeing that undoubtedly influence my perspective. For example, I am a mid-forties white male studying a photograph of an elderly Black woman. There is no shortage of collections of photographs – or writings on such - by white men about Black bodies, about women’s bodies. Though this is not the primary focus of why I’m interested in this photograph, I must be aware that it affects how I see the picture. I am also aware of my place of origin, both as a person and a photographer, and how those are inextricably related to both coal and to West Virginia. I am also a student of historical photographs from the region, so I likely spend more time studying composition, location, time period, and the photographer who made the picture. I also consider how or if the subject matter of the photograph has changed over time, whether a particular building might still be standing, what a deforested mountainside might now look like some decades later, and so on.
At first glance, this photograph seems otherworldly, perhaps I can convince myself that if I squint just so, I can picture an astronaut on the moon bending down to collect a sample to study back on earth. Instead, I am left with a reminder that for as long as coal has been mined in these hills, we have been offered only the scraps that remain from toiling underground. That which has been thrown out, thrown away, discarded as no good and of no use, this is where we find ourselves.
I know that Marion Post Wolcott was around 28 years old when she made this photograph. She made this picture during the first year Roy Stryker hired her as the first full time woman photographer of the FSA (Dorothea Lange had been working since 1935, but part time). This picture was likely made on her first assignment and her visit to West Virginia. Stryker was known to punch holes in photographs he deemed not fit to print, which you can see below as two of the five images Wolcott made of the woman bear evidence of Stryker’s hole punch.
By my best guess, I reckon this woman to be in her 80’s. For argument sake, let’s say 80. This picture was made in September 1938, which would mean she was born around 1860. Was she born a slave? What was her childhood like during the Civil War? We can never know for certain, but suffice it to say, this woman had seen many things through the course of her life at the making of this series of photographs in Monongalia County, West Virginia.
Aesthetically, this photograph is hauntingly beautiful. Black and white photography still dominated most picture making at the time (Kodachrome had been introduced three years prior in 1935), but I can’t imagine this photograph much different as a color image. The entire frame, from corner to corner, is composed of a pallet of blacks, grays, and whites. The perforations (sprocket holes) visible at the top and bottom of the frame indicate a 35mm film camera, which by this time had been used widely by the public for two decades. If I had to guess, I’d say she was using a Leica.
While researching other FSA-era photographs of West Virginia, I noticed that Ben Shahn also made pictures in Cassville a few years earlier. One picture in particular stood out to me. It showed several miners’ shacks with crudely made outhouses perched on the hill behind them. Then, I noticed the pattern of the slate dump located behind the houses to the right of the frame. After comparing Wolcott’s and Shahn’s photographs, I’m convinced they were not only from the same coal camp, but damn near the same location.
I am fascinated by the FSA photographs of West Virginia and the coal-producing areas of Appalachia. There is so much rich history contained in them seemingly waiting for us to visit them, spend time with them, learn from them, and hopefully sometimes connect with them.