Coal Hollow: Photographs And Oral Histories

by Matt Damsker


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By Ken Light and Melanie Light. 2006, University of California Press, 2120 Berkeley Way, Berkeley, CA 94704-1012; 152 pages, 97 duotones; ISBN No. 0-520-24654-3; clothbound, $34.95. Information: phone: (510) 642-4247, fax: (510) 643-7127; .

We may think that the imagery of down-and-out white America begins and end with the classic Depression-era photography of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and the other WPA photographers who put faces to the poverty and dustbowl grit of the 1930s. But the hardscrabble life of West Virginia's coal-mining culture is very much with us--especially in somewhat recent news of fatal mining disasters--and Ken Light's photography documents this Appalachian corner of America in powerful, large-format, black-and-white detail, reminding us that times remain as tough for these people as they were for their Depression-era forebears.

Light and his wife, Melanie, traveled extensively through this isolated terrain, taking pictures and capturing the oral histories of residents (Coal Hollow is actually a fictional composite of the communities visited by the Lights). The theme that runs through these accounts--of coal-company greed and the vulnerability of the poor--is familiar, but Light's photographs bring a vivid immediacy to what is at stake here. And what is at stake are lives, lives blinkered by chronic unemployment amid the rough enclosure of mountain hollows, but defiantly alive. Images of forty- and fifty-year-olds, who look considerably older, aged by the mines, are balanced by photos of those like Brother James, a ruddy bear of a man who, at 61, presides over his tent revival with all the spirit and vigor of youth. Many of Light's photos are mainly textural studies more so than social documentarian statements--the lines and furrows in the up-close faces, like trails in and out of West Virginia's hills, or the rustic beauty of a floral crucifix placed on a tree stump by a wire fence, in memory of "Grandpa," or the unpaved, pebbled, rutted roads on which children lead horses, or the sight of a tiny, paint-peeling church huddled against a densely foliated hill.

Amidst trash heaped next to a falling-apart screen door, with a wooden plank serving as a front steps, a couple fills the threshold, hugging their plump infant in a moment of sheer happiness. Another couple sits on a bare mattress in a bare bedroom lit by a bare light bulb, sharing a look of desolation in the near darkness. And a different sort of darkness pervades the white garb of Ku Klux Klan members gathered for a meeting. These photos don't strain to tell their stories so much as suggest the broad hope, despair, degeneracy, and decency that spans these generations--a microcosm, after all, of an America that often fails itself, yet carries on.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.