By Roger May / New York Times Lens Blog
Stopover. Oddville. Meta. Climax. Dwarf. Ned. Beauty. Mud Lick. Viper. Thousand Sticks. Paw Paw. These are some of the towns Bill Burke, Bob Hower, and Ted Wathen photographed during their historic three-year survey of Kentucky from 1975 to 1977.
I became aware of this work several years ago, but it wasn’t until I recently received one of the few mock-ups in existence, consisting of 165 prints, that I began to understand its importance. I am captivated by the timelessness and soul of these photographs that are familiar to me of a place I am from and where I currently make pictures. There is a certain majesty to finds like these.
“Although the focus for these photographs is Kentucky,” Mr. Wathen wrote in the introduction, “the themes developed are American.”
He had returned home to Kentucky in 1975 — the year of my birth — shortly after finishing an M.F.A. at the University of Florida, and began to make pictures in the Bluegrass State. On a trip to Frankfort to visit the Kentucky Arts Commission and the Kentucky Bicentennial Commission, it dawned on him: Why not photograph all 120 of Kentucky’s counties to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial? Inspired by the Farm Security Administration work of Lange, Evans and Lee as well as by Robert Frank, the mission would be to document the state and create an authentic record of the land and its people.
Mr. Wathen contacted the National Endowment for the Arts in search of financing and learned it was preparing to fund a series of photographic survey grants. The criteria required a minimum of three photographers, so he reached out to his friend Bob Hower and pitched the project to him. Mr. Hower was immediately onboard and contacted Bill Burke, a Middlebury College colleague, and invited him to join.
The three divided Kentucky’s 120 counties among them and got to work. By June 1975 they received a $12,000 grant from the N.E.A. and $12,000 in matching funds, as well as other funding, to develop what would become the Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project.
Working on a budget of $20 a day per photographer to cover food, gas and lodging, most of the time they slept in their cars or parks or stayed with people they met along the way. They photographed everything that interested them: folks bathing in farm ponds, a Jehovah’s Witness’s garage, bridge painters, church services, whiskey warehouses, swinging bridges and strip mines. Over the course of the project, Mr. Wathen estimates they drove 30,000 miles and made more than 60,000 photographs.
I was especially interested to learn that Mr. Wathen gave away Polaroid prints while working in the field, as he discovered that the small courtesy often opened doors. He recalled photographing the postmaster in Saul, Ky., where no one else wanted to be in the picture. When Mr. Wathen used the Polaroid back on his Mamiya camera to make a print, suddenly everyone wanted to be photographed too. This is also a ritual I now practice while making pictures in Appalachia.
The project is rich with photographs that defined the era. For example, one of Mr. Wathen’s photographs is a scene straight from John Prine’s classic song “Paradise.” In 1976, Mr. Wathen photographed some of the world’s largest earth-moving mining machinery at the Peabody mine (Slide 21) in Muhlenberg County. As Mr. Prine’s song goes, “Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel and they tortured the timber and stripped all the land. Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken, then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.” And in the photograph, we bear witness to that reality 40 years ago as well as today.
After three years, the group spent a year editing 4,000 proof prints for a 1979 exhibit at the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House in Rochester. The following year, the work was shown at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum. Despite the initial success of the exhibits, the book project, “Making Do,” never happened and was shelved.
The project lay dormant for more than 30 years. Mr. Wathen — who would later be a principal photographer for the president’s 1979 Commission on Coal — and Mr. Hower formed a partnership that continues to this day. Mr. Burke went on to teach at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts, where he still is. Renewed interest in the project resulted in the Frazier History Museum in Louisville, Ky., to host an exhibit of the work called “Rough Road,” featuring more than 90 large prints from the series and a catalog.
Forty years later, Mr. Wathen and Mr. Hower have decided to retrace their steps and begin making pictures of Kentucky again. Mr. Burke recently visited me on his way out west while I was teaching a workshop at the Hindman Settlement School in Knott County, Ky. Over lunch, we talked about what had changed and what hadn’t since his last visit to the coalfields: God, guns and coal.
For me, this work is just as rich today as when it was made. There is a realness that keeps me coming back to these images, and when looked at not as a work of totality, but as a longer view layered with complexity, it becomes more timeless, more powerful. There is power in not only looking, but listening, too.
All three photographers kept diaries of their experiences working in Kentucky. In Mr. Howers’s diary he recorded the words of a night foreman at Falcon Coal in Breathitt County.
“I’m proud, I’m mighty proud,” the foreman said. “I got a home in Jackson. I just made the last payment on it last month. We’re hillbillies — that’s what they call us and that’s what we are. Now you just take all the pictures you want and if there’s anything you need, you just let us know.”