Review: Faith, Serpents, and Fire: Images of Kentucky Holiness Believers


Hardcover| 9.5 x 9 inches | 128 pages | 88 black and white photographs University Press of Mississippi, 1999 | Scott Schwartz

"And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover." Mark 16:17-18, King James Version

As far back as I can remember, well before picking up a camera, I've been fascinated by the serpent-handling faith. This religious tradition has long been ridiculed and used as an example to highlight the Appalachian backwoods stereotype. I've wanted to photograph these services for a while now and though I'm far from the religious upbringing of my Appalachian childhood, I look forward to making some pictures later this summer. Why? I'm simply fascinated by an obedience that would call one to take up a serpent as an act of worship. I'd like to photograph these services as a celebration of faith and tradition.

I picked this book up at the 2013 Appalachian Studies Conference in Boone, North Carolina. At the same time, I was reading Dennis Covington's fabulous 1995 book Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia (which Schwartz lists in his bibliography). One of the more striking passages from Convington's book is below, and as a photographer, I've mentally substituted 'photographer' for 'writer' and found it to be especially true:

"I believe that the writer has another eye, not a literal eye, but an eye on the inside of his head. It is the eye with which he sees the imaginary, three-dimensional world where the story he is writing takes place. But is also the eye with which the writer beholds the connectedness of things, of past, present, and future. The writer's literal eyes are like vestigial organs, useless except to record physical details. The only eye worth talking about is the eye in the middle of the writer's head, the one that casts its pale, sorrowful light backward over the past and forward into the future, taking everything in at once, the whole story, from beginning to end."


Before I continue, I should let you know that if you're expecting technically superb, sharp images from Schwartz's book, you'll be sorely disappointed. What the book lacks in technical merit, it more than makes up for with the supplemental text and depth of the work in its entirety.

Schwartz notes in the introduction:

"The photographs were taken with 35mm, 400 ASA film, without flash, in an effort to intrude as little as possible upon the services. As a result, the film was "push-processed" two and three stops. The pronounced grain and the strient patterns of light in these images are the result of this process and of my desire to have the photographs represent the mood of the spiritual experiences. The photographs and essays record the complex and sometimes humorous social interactions that I encountered and provide an intimate glimpse into serpent-handling practices and beliefs, moving beyond the stereotypes of Appalachian snake charmers and fire eaters to illustrate the deeply personal and communal spirituality that is an integral element of the services."


It's clear to me that though Schwartz took a scholarly approach to the fieldwork conducted for this book, much like Covington's journalistic approach to Salvation on Sand Mountainboth men experienced far more than they bargained for. I don't think it was an accident that I discovered these two books at roughly the same time I'm doing prep work for my own experience with this community. Together, these books have helped reinforce my interest in the subject and my desire to add another voice to the conversation.

Schwartz writes, "Everything seems so natural, yet the media's blitz about a recent serpent-handling fatality paints a much darker and more sinister picture of these people. However, I am drawn by a brighter image." It's usually then, and only then, that the media's attention is on this tradition. It's important to note that this isn't a widespread Appalachian religious tradition contrary to popular belief. However, when there's a fatality, such as Mack Wolford's in West Virginia last year, the notion that serpent handling is a common part of worship in rural churches throughout Appalachia is once again perpetuated.


Another passage from Salvation on Sand Mountain:

"It's not true that you become used to the noise and confusion of a snake-handling Holiness service. On the contrary, you become enmeshed in it. It is theater at its most intricate - improvisational, spiritual jazz. The more you experience it, the more attentive you are to the shifts in the surface and the dark shoals underneath. For every outward sign, there is a spiritual equivalent. When somebody falls to his knees, a specific problem presents itself, and the others know exactly what to do, whether it's oil for a healing, or a prayer cloth thrown over the shoulders, or a devil that needs to be cast out."


If you'd like a chance to win a copy of Faith, Serpents, and Fire: Images of Kentucky Holiness Believers, please leave your name, city, and state in the comments field by midnight EST, Friday, 26 April 2013. I'll select a winner at random the following day.


Review: New Deal Photographs of West Virginia, 1934-1943

Hardcover| 8 x 9.5 inches | 240 pages | 150 black and white photographs West Virginia University Press, 2012 | $29.99

Between 1934 and 1943, ten photographers: Elmer "Ted" Johnson, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein, Carl Mydans, Edwin Locke, Marion Post Wolcott, John Vachon, John Collier, Jr., and Arthur Siegel, visited West Virginia as part of Roy Stryker's Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographic unit. The FSA's primary attention during this time was on the northern and southern coalfields, the three subsistence homestead communities (Arthurdale, Eleanor, and Tygart Valley), and two wartime assignments in Nicholas and Mason counties.

What Rivard offers in this beautifully presented book, is a collection of images by photographers whose work I know well of West Virginia at a time I never knew. I'm fascinated with how others see my home state. None of these photographers are from West Virginia, yet they managed to capture its essence, its livelihood. Perhaps one of the things I appreciate most about these pictures is that they were made at a time when photographs weren't nearly as a prevalent as they are today (Instagram, Facebook and the like). Unlike the War on Poverty images of Appalachia, these pictures were made with a different intent. I sense a true collective effort to document the people and stories of West Virginia when I look at these photographs and think about the photographers who made them. Rivard notes that, "The photographs in this book offer professional fine art photographs in support of these memories, snapshots, and stories."

She continues:

"It is beyond the scope of this book to explore why, especially in the past fifty years, the state became a poster child for a culture of poverty. Unfortunately, the media have focused on poverty and exaggerated backwoods-type images as representative of West Virginia. These images have left terrible scars on a number of people who have grown up in the state. They also continue to bring harm through the perceptions that some outsiders have formed of the state and its citizens."

Rivard does a more than fair job of including images from a variety of the photographers as well as the regions covered. As a Mingo County native, I was somewhat disappointed to not see any photographs of Williamson or outlying areas included in the Southern Coalfields section, given Mingo's rich coal heritage and importance in the labor movement. But I admit my bias and am including an image (not in the book) by Ben Shahn made in Williamson in 1935. Logan and McDowell counties are well represented in pictures by Ben Shahn and Marion Post Wolcott.

New Deal Photographs of West Virginia is a brilliant book, extremely well edited and designed. The photographic reproductions are sharp and well printed and with every image, the Library of Congress negative file number is included, which makes finding them online incredibly easy. I can only hope for a second volume.

Betty Rivard is an award-winning fine art landscape photographer. She has researched and coordinated three exhibits of FSA photographs of West Virginia and contributed to articles about the FSA Project to Wonderful West Virginia, Goldenseal, and West Virginia South magazines. She is a Social Worker Emeritus and traveled to every county in West Virginia during her 25-year career as a social worker and planner with the state. Rivard's photography portfolio can be seen here.

Here are a few of my favorites from New Deal Photographs of West Virginia:

1. Wives of coal miners talking over the fence. Capels, West Virginia. Marion Post Wolcott. September 1938. LC-USF34-050260-E. 2. Miner (Russian). Capels, West Virginia. Marion Post Wolcott. September 1938. LC-USF33-030077-M1. 3. Men in Sunday clothes with miners' clubhouse in the background. Omar, West Virginia. Ben Shahn. October 1935. LC-USF33-006200-M1. 4. Coming home from school. Mining town. Osage, Scotts Run, West Virginia. Marion Post Wolcott. September 1938. LC-USF34-050352-E.

Very special thanks to Elaine McMillion, director of Hollow: An Interactive Documentary, for arranging a review copy of New Deal Photographs of West Virginia.