Gordon Smith’s (b. 1952) black-and-white photographs of Kentucky’s coal mining country and its people are disturbing documents of hardscrabble life. His images tell the story of the miners and their families who endure the crushing poverty that forces them to destroy their very environment to survive.
A part of the photographic tradition of social commentary, Smith began this powerful series in 1994. Then the incidence of incredibly destructive mountaintop removal mining was growing because of the increased demand for low-sulfur coal. The process starts with cutting down the trees on the mountaintop and using explosives to blow off the top. Bulldozers and shovels scrape away the exposed veins of coal and fill nearby valleys with the waste. More than 500 Appalachian mountaintops have been destroyed and 1.4 million acres of forest lost. Thousands of miles of streams have been buried and millions of gallons of water have been contaminated. All this is due to mountaintop removal mining.
It’s impossible to look at Smith’s images of the people, their homes, and the land that surrounds them without thinking about other photographers who documented similar situations of abject poverty. In the late 1880s, social reformer and journalist Jacob Riis (1849-1914) began photographing the squalor in which new immigrants lived in the tenements and dives of the Five Points neighborhood in downtown Manhattan.
The sociologist and photojournalist Lewis Hine (1874-1940) is best known for his work documenting child labor in American industry for the National Child Labor Committee (1908-1918), which lobbied to end the practice, but this is just one area of his work.
The most obvious comparison to Smith’s work is the Farm Security Administration’s (F. S. A.) work. From 1935 to1944, a team of photographers, the best known being Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, recorded the plight of the rural poor during the Great Depression. Smith’s own photographs are in the style of Evans’ unvarnished portraits of farmers and their families as well as their surroundings.
As Smith focuses on the impoverished men, women, and children and their environment of the coalfields of southeastern Kentucky, he creates a narrative needing little elaboration. However, captions for each photograph provide specific details.
In almost lusciously printed silver prints, Smith’s message is reinforced formally with his rich range of blacks and sparing use of whites, emphasizing the very nature of his subjects, the psychological and emotional despair with only a small amount of hope. He uses a 2 ¼” x 2 ¼” camera, which allows him to record the scene in greater detail than a smaller format camera would allow.
Smith’s pictures fall into two categories: portraits of the people and how they live and of their land scarred by the mining that provides their subsistence livelihood.
“Schuster ‘Frog’ Johnston and Brian ‘Bobcat’ Hogg, Hemphill” belongs to the first. Filthy and tired from their shift at a deep mine operation, Frog and Bobcat face the camera, Smith, and ultimately the viewer. This is the same pose used by the German photographer August Sander (1876-1964) for his “People of the Twentieth Century” series.
Frog’s helmet shades his eyes, and his expression is hard to read. But Bobcat, with his head tilted slightly, seems to dare anyone to say anything. It’s a look that the photographer described as “passive vacuity and bitter resignation.”
The caption notes that Frog and Bobcat risk their lives “. . . on a daily basis, crawling on hands and knees along the slimy muck-covered floorways (sic) of an airless catacomb, whose roof is in danger of collapse at any moment.” And this pays 10 bucks an hour, making it one of the best-paying jobs in the area.
With a swing set in the background, “Christine Brown, Cranks Creek” stands barefoot with her arms extended in front of her body with her hands clasped below her waist. Looking about 10-years old, she has a closed-mouth grin and apple checks. Trash, a discarded door, antiquated washing machine, and other castoffs surround her, but she’s oblivious. She’s just enjoying being a kid in her tee shirt and cutoffs. It’s heartbreaking to read that she won’t go on to fourth grade because of “behavioral problems.” It’s a shot worthy of Diane Arbus.
Smith’s work fits easily into the lineage of photographic social commentary, but there is one unexpected photographic comparison. It is between Smith and Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901), an English proto-Pictorialist. Smith is a “straight” photographer, and Robinson combined separate photographs into a single image, using what’s been described as the “scissors and paste-pot” method of composition. Yet in several aspects, including composition, lighting, and, even intent, in a sense, Smith’s “The Napier Family, Cawood Hill” brings to mind Robinson’s 1858 “Fading Away.”
Using strong contrasts between light and dark for dramatic effect, both photographers have arranged a tableau to convey their message.
In the melodramatic and romantic “Fading Away,” Robinson has placed a beautiful young girl just off center. Lying on a fainting couch, she wears a white nightgown and rests her head on a large white pillow, appearing to be peacefully asleep. She is attended by a toothless old woman on the left while on the right, a much younger woman leans on the back of the chaise. In the background a man in silhouette looks out the window. His head is bowed, unable to see the cloud-filled sky beyond, perhaps a reference to heaven.
Nothing hopeful exists in Smith’s staged composition. The central image is of Green Napier. Now in his 40s, he was born with cerebral palsy. His parents have cared for him his entire life, living on his disability checks. Green lies on an extended recliner, which is partially covered with a white sheet, a white backdrop like the girl’s more comforting pillow. His face is nothing like the calm visage of the dying girl. Instead it is frozen into an exaggerated clown-like frown. His right arm is held in an unnatural position with his hand bent back at the wrist and his fingers curled like claws. He reaches out to his withered mother on the left, the same position occupied by Robinson’s crone. On the right Green’s father stares out at the viewer as if to say, “This is just our life; it’s just the way it is.” He can no more change it than can Robinson’s solitary man.
In addition to the people of coal country, Smith also turns his lens on the land ravaged by mountaintop removal mining. He records the ruin faithfully, but also creates almost abstract images, especially in his aerial views. In “Two Dumpsters, Perry County,” dirt roads sweep in broad arcs, like giant brushstrokes. The two trucks become rectangular shapes in the nearly abstract composition. The swathes of road mark the earth like the Nazca lines in Peru, but here there’s no mystery about how they were made.
Smith’s landscapes can be even more abstract, just compositions of light and dark. Of course, he’s not the only landscape photographer to translate nature into self-conscious art. Ansel Adams comes to mind. What makes Smith’s pictures different is that this land bears witness to its abuse at man’s hand.
Riis, Hine, the F. S. A. photographers, and others in the social commentary tradition all sought to draw attention to the horror of the daily lives of the unfortunate, hoping to spur the powers that be to change it.
Smith has recorded these Appalachian miners as they continue to do what their fathers and grandfathers have done for decades and remain exploited by corporations (remember, they are people, too, but apparently without a conscience). The coal companies offer nothing but a subsistence wage to those who create those profits. And nothing changes.
–Karen S. Chambers
Presages: Gordon Smith’s Kentucky Coal Country Photographs on view through September 18, 2011, at the Iris BookCafe and Gallery, 1313 Main St., Cincinnati, OH 45202, 513-381-2665.
 Coal generates half of the energy produced in the U. S., and supplies nearly all that the Greater Cincinnati area consumes. A third of the coal used is extracted in Appalachia, according to the press release for the exhibition.
 In the late 1880s, Jacob Riis’s friend and fellow photographer Dr. John Nagle, chief of the Bureau of Vital Statistics in the City Health Department, asked him and two other photographers, Henry Piffard and Richard Hoe Lawrence, to document the slums and dives populated by recent immigrants in Five Points, possibly Manhattan’s the most dangerous neighborhood in the 19th century. Riis used his and photographs made by others in magic lantern presentations at churches and Sunday schools to rally support for reform. These photos illustrated Riis’s “How the Other Half Lives” article in the Christmas 1889 edition of Scribner’s Magazine and the subsequent 1890 book. These pictures were uncredited, but as a part of Riis’s archive, now in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York, are generally identified as his. http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacob_Riis.
 Five Points was bordered by Centre Street on the west, The Bowery on the east, Canal Street on the north, and Park Row on the south. It was notorious for seven decades as a disease-infected and crime-ridden neighborhood. It was the setting for Herbert Asbury’s 1928 nonfiction book, Gangs of New York, which was the basis for the 2002 historical film of the same name. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_Points,_Manhattan.
 Lewis Hine’s professional life was spent photographing areas where social reforms were needed. Two years before beginning his landmark work on child labor in 1908, he documented the life in the steelmaking districts of Pittsburg. During and after World War I, he recorded American Red Cross relief efforts in Europe and then drought relief in the South during the Great Depression. For the Tennessee Valley Authority, Hine photographed life in the mountains of eastern Tennessee. These are just a few of his photographic projects. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis_Hine.
 The photographers of the Historical Unit of the Farm Security Administration, originally called the Resettlement Administration, documented the conditions of the rural poor. Their photographs were offered free of charge to newspapers and magazines. The political motive behind this project was to maintain the coalition of urban and rural poor, which put Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Democratic Party into power. John Sarkowski. Photography Until Now (New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1989), 215.
 In his “People of the Twentieth Century” series, begun before World War I, August Sander, a professional photographer in Germany, set about creating an encyclopedic record of the people of the Weimar Republic. In Face of Our Time, published in 1929, 60 photographs from that series illustrated the seven types he had identified: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, The Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City, and The Last People. Ironically Sander began his project with prosperous tenant farmers, considered peasants because they did not own the land they farmed. They offer a stark contrast with the F. S. A. photos of American farmers whose way of life had been destroyed by drought and the Great Depression. Ibid., 239, 244. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/August_Sander.
 Henry Peach Robinson’s Fading Away, 1858, is an albumen print and combines five negatives. Measuring 2.4” x 39.3 cm, it was a gift by Alden Scott Boyer to the George Eastman House, Rochester, NY. http://www.geh.org/taschen/htmlsrc6/m197601160001_ful.html#topofimage. http://www.geh.org/taschen/htmlsrc6/m197601160001_ful.html#topofimage.
anyone who know gordon smith knows that he is a firebrand….. a wise guy who speaks his mind. but in his world the term wise guy transfers into wise man. … his images have always attested to that level of profundity in which he lives his life…. he cares to share and does because he cares and cares deeply…
bravo for this show and bravo for this in-depth review which draws the map of his concerns and their lineage
now if only any of this work and any of anyones work who works in the well of truths to be told and told beautifully, would only matter enough to change the condition which they address…. well.. corporations wouldn’t be people and the world would be advancing rather than dancing with doom
thanks gordon smith for your moral muscle and unbearably clear eyes…