Looking at Appalachia

Looking at Appalachia | Susan May Tell

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

Looking at Appalachia | Hunter Barnes

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.