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Coal Hollow

Photographs By Ken Light
Introduction By J.B. Colson

A Special Co-presentation with The Digital Journalist

"If we must grind up human flesh and bone in the industrial machine we call modern America, then before God I assert that those who consume coal and you and I who benefit from that service because we live in comfort, we owe protection to those men first, and we owe security to their families if they die."

United Mine Workers of America President John L. Lewis in a 1947 speech to the U. S. Congress, after 111 mine workers died in an explosion.

There was a time when John L. Lewis was a household name in America and news of mine disasters and miners' strikes was frequent. Where I grew up coal had a direct presence in our lives with a coal bin and coal dust in the basement. We shoveled coal into the furnace and ashes into the yard. Industry depended on coal and we knew it because when coal production stopped, industry stopped; in the worst cases it was a national crisis.

Coal is still a formidable force in American lives, but much less evident. It provides about 50 percent of our electricity and is used in making hundreds of products including cement, ceramics, wallboard, plastics, medicines and fertilizers. Sadly, mine disasters are still making news, and the families connected to coal production are still lacking protection, comfort and security.

Coal Hollow, not a real place, is a construct from all too real places and people documented over several years in eight counties of West Virginia, our second largest coal producing state. Melanie Light's oral histories and Ken Light's black-and-white photography give us a documentary that goes far beyond the news to show the enduring damage coal mining has done to the people and environment of Appalachia. We should all note this degradation for, as Robert Reich, an economist, Professor of Public Policy and former U. S. secretary of labor, writes in his Foreword to Coal Hollow, "There is growing evidence that the survival of societies depends on how they treat their human and natural resources."

The introduction, "Slag," by Melanie provides an economic and historical context for the people and places we meet in Coal Hollow. It is a cautionary tale with implications for those of us somewhere in the middle class because the economic forces that enriched those few at the apex of coal production and impoverished the land and workers left behind are akin to forces playing out now in other industries of the global economy, threatening many now comfortable. Melanie concludes "Slag" by writing: "Along with mineral debris, the coal companies left behind human slag. The broken earth and the broken people await reclamation." The subsequent portfolio of photographs and interviews make it clear that reclamation will be hard to come by.

Ken Light, who teaches photography at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, has five previous documentary books to his credit and also produced Witness In Our Time: Working Lives of Documentary Photographers (Smithsonian Press, October 2000). He prefers photographing with the medium format (but used 35mm for his book Texas Death Row, where he wanted the discretion and high film speed it allows). For Coal Hollow he used Mamiya 6s, a rangefinder camera with a 6 x 6 cm negative that handles like a Leica. Although working with an eye-level viewfinder, he often gets low with the camera, going eye-to-eye with a short dog or looking up at faces. His close-to-the-face portraits leave us no doubt that many of these people have had hard, damaging lives without decent medical care. All of the 82 duotones are full-square, and nearly fill their 11-inch square pages, allowing full appreciation of their rich tonality and detail. Some believe the square format is a difficult working space - the frame lacks a dominant direction, leaving a potential for static compositions. Ken is a master of the square composition and his images are alive with energy and dynamic interest. In addition to landscapes, signs, portraits, close-ups and environmentals, he records active situations including a tent revival and a wrestling match. At-home activities include "Three generations fixing the car on a Sunday" "Hollie's haircut." Children are often lively and joyful, as in "Jumping into the inflatable pool" and "The bridge toward home," even though their surroundings beg improvement.
Ken's connection to Appalachia goes back to his college years at Ohio University, located not far from the region documented in Coal Hollow. Asked about a possible connection he writes, "I was a United Mine Workers poll watcher during the dissident campaign of Joseph A. Yablonski in 1969 elections, photographed in rural parts of Appalachia and in 1972 set off to rural West Virginia when the Buffalo Creek Mine disaster happened in February of that year." That disaster, one of the deadliest floods in U.S. history, was caused by negligent strip mining and killed 125 immediately, injured 1,100 and left 4,000 homeless. There was little penalty for the mining company responsible and small recompense for the towns and lives destroyed.

Melanie Light's 11 oral histories are thoughtfully chosen from about 30 interviews to "represent as complete a cast of characters as possible: retired miners, men and women who have never had permanent employment, a local coal industries owner, a justice for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, a writer who bravely ran for governor on a third-party ticket, and people who returned to the hills when their lives failed elsewhere." She writes a statement for the head of each, then gives us the speaker's words edited into a cohesive, highly readable personal statement. Her own words inform like a fine novelist. Describing Faye's grandson she writes, "…finally he does what she wants, more or less. He's 18 and wants badly to be a man but isn't at all sure how to do that." For her meeting with a novelist and political activist she writes, "Clutching a giant shopping bag, she stands uncertainly in the middle of the crowded café as if she had stumbled into the wrong universe, when, in fact, it is practically her second office."

What emerges from this documentary is a profound sense of a complex situation with many points of view about its causes and possible remedies. It is certain that Appalachia has suffered greatly from mining, that operations by distant entities with little local interest contribute to the damage (an interviewee quoted her research finding 85 percent of McDowell County was owned out of state), that an appropriate severance tax is one obvious remedy not applied, that due care for mining safely has been broadly ignored, that technology has inevitably decimated jobs and increased the skills required for those that remain.

But the jobs that remain pay reasonably well if you discount discomfort and danger. Welfare and government help for communities is seen as woefully inadequate by some and as creating a regretful dependency by others. Unions are credited with historic improvements in miners' lives, and with driving jobs away with excessive demands. The area is seen as having great potential for modernization and development by one interviewee and as hopeless by another who says, "There's nothing that would attract anybody."

A documentary that takes us thoughtfully and with feeling into a complex subject depends on artful integration of well-wrought images and text. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, with photography by Walker Evans and text by James Agee, is a classic referred to by Orville Schell in his Foreword to Coal Hollow as he points to the importance of both the independence and integration of Melanie and Ken Light's contributions to this documentary. He quotes Agee's discussion of the ideal, a co-equal text-photograph relationship "…mutually independent and fully collaborative." Walker Evans told me the model for that relationship was The Golden Bowl, a novel by Henry James with photography by Alvin Langdon Coburn first published in 1904. Like Evans and Agee, Coburn and James were considered among the greatest practitioners of their respective arts in their own time. James discusses photography's relationship to his text at length in his introduction. Evans and Agee worked together in the field. Coburn and James did not. Balance in the design of documentary presentation and development of material in the field are separate, but related issues.

Coal Hollow, produced by a married couple, brings two more issues to the discussion of collaboration, living together while working, and gender. Ken says: "Working with Melanie was a wonderful new experience. She brought her own ideas, questions and pushed me to see and think beyond my often narrow focus. Her insight pushed me outside the box. I have always worked alone on my projects, so working together, both in the field, and also talking about the project around the house pushed this work beyond my expectations." Melanie thinks the project gained from their working both independently and together at different times. Regarding gender she says, "People seem to warm to a husband-wife team; we are safer and less threatening. We could cover all bases in some ways. For example, I remember when a retired miner just didn't really seem to want to talk to me, as a woman, so Ken was easily able to step in and ask the questions, while I took a back seat, asking my questions through him. Similarly, there were times when the women would warm to me and while I was busy interviewing and creating a bond, Ken was then free to take photos."

Their interaction helped both gathering material in the field and designing its final presentation. Melanie continues her thoughts with, "I feel that this project is a lot stronger because of the collaboration in many ways. Each one of us had to defend the use of any given picture or piece of text more rigorously in order to create and preserve a cohesive voice. In that process things were jettisoned or discovered that strengthened the whole project and sharpened our thinking."

Beyond its merits for helping us appreciate the personal and social burdens of coal mining in Appalachia, Coal Hollow serves as a model for how to bring photography and interviews together in a documentary book.

In 1946 the United Mine Workers, headed by John L. Lewis, in answer to a national crisis negotiated a contract that mandated a Federal study of health and living conditions in mining communities. The study, published in 1947 and known as the Boone Report after the Navy admiral who directed it, included over 150 photographs by Russell Lee who worked in the field with his wife, Jean. It was Lee's most exhaustive documentation for a single project. The report's findings were shocking and resulted in improvements for the miners. The project is now mostly forgotten, although some of Lee's photographs of miners are well-known to those acquainted with his work.

We no longer have a John L. Lewis. We no longer see miner's lives as a national crisis. We still have mine disasters, such as the recent Sago disaster. We currently have a national push to increase coal production because of the rising costs of oil and natural gas. The government is not inclined to do nor trusted now for more efforts like the Boone Report. News sources give us reports on dramatic events, usually with thin context. Without documentary efforts like Coal Hollow we are short of background, short of the insights we need to be informed, empathetic, fully functioning citizens.

View the Coal Hollow Photo Gallery

J. B. Colson studied under the direction of Clarence White for his BFA in photography. After serving as a Signal Corps photographer in Panama he studied documentary film at UCLA. He made non-theatrical films in the Detroit area before teaching photojournalism at the University of Texas, where he inaugurated a program at the Bachelors, Masters, and Ph.D. levels. In the 1980s he worked in Mexico with Jean Meyer and the Collegio de Michoacan documenting village life in the High Meseta. He still teaches a graduate course in the history and criticism of photography. He wrote the introduction to a UT Press book on FSA photographer Russell Lee, to be published in Spring 2007.



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