essays and articles by david g allen

Not All Photographs Tell a True Story


I got a lump of coal for Christmas. Actually, I got a copy of Coal Hollow: Photographs and Oral Histories, a smallish coffee table book published by the University of California Press. The authors are Ken Light and Melanie Light.

The dust cover flap carries this description of Coal Hollow: “In Ken Light’s poignant images and in their own distinctive voices the residents of Coal Hollow—a fictional composite of the communities the Lights surveyed …”

Though not intended as a disclaimer, the words “fictional composite” do serve to defend a glaring misrepresentation.

Coal Hollow exhibits a portfolio of black-and-white photos taken in the southern West Virginia coalfields. Except on page 26. That photo is of two Klansmen standing in front of the Jefferson County, Ohio, courthouse located in Steubenville, some 300 road miles north of the subject area. It is captioned: “Ku Klux Klan speech at the county courthouse. Ohio—West Virginia border, 1999.”

On the page opposite, there is a photo of two men wearing Klan hoods which is captioned as being taken at a rally in downtown Fayetteville, W. Va. in 2002.

I have to ask the authors: If you have an actual photo of Klansmen taken in the subject area, then why would you include one taken in another state and from north of Mason and Dixon’s line?

The book’s photographs are very dark. I think they were overexposed to add a measure of gloom to the photoessay. But having said that, I grant the authors the license to do so if that was their intent.

Although Walker Evans, the renowned Farm Security Administration photographer, is mentioned in the Foreword as a standard of comparison, I do not agree that the photos in Coal Hollow are comparable to Mr. Evans’ work. Walker Evans, Marion Post Wolcott and Ben Shahn captured the poverty of the Great Depression with their excellent photography for the Farm Security Administration. They did not have to artificially shade the sky gray to get the message across.

If your goal is to educate yourself about the legacy of mining in the southern coalfields, then I would not recommend Coal Hollow. However, I do recommend that you read it from cover-to-cover for two other reasons—to realize the failure of decades of anti-poverty programs and to see the ugly images that West Virginia can still present.

This year, as in years past, West Virginia will spend millions on subsidizing Tamarack and the state park system because these institutions improve our image. We are told that the money we spend is buying goodwill.

Although Coal Hollow identifies Beckley as the gateway to the southern coalfields, the authors apparently did not shop at Tamarack. Nor did they spend the night at Chief Logan State Park. Otherwise, all of our goodwill would have swayed their work.

In 1960, Saturday Evening Post brought our state’s poverty to light with photos that infuriated many West Virginians. Thereafter, President John F. Kennedy vowed to improve our lot. He remade the food stamp program; the first modern food stamps were given to a McDowell County family in 1961. After that, came the Appalachian Regional Commission and Head Start. Billions in federal aid have been spent to cure poverty in our state.

We can go back even farther in time. The Farm Security Administration photographs mentioned earlier brought the poverty of Scott’s Run near Morgantown to public attention. Eleanor Roosevelt lobbied for the creation of Arthurdale, a commune to house and train the Scott’s Run miner’s families as artisans who would then become economically self-sustaining. Eleanor built Arthurdale, but her dream of its self-sufficiency never came true for the very same reasons that Tamarack’s dream will never come true.

If the truth were known, out-migration to greener pastures has spared more West Virginians from the ignominy of poverty than have all of the anti-poverty programs put together. Rather than cure poverty, we have thrown money at the poor. The best we can say on their behalf is that we have made their poverty bearable, if not an industry unto itself.

With the publication of Coal Hollow, West Virginia’s government should consider its options. The best course of action would be to focus on breaking the cycle of poverty rather than subsidize it as we currently do. The other option is to stop Californians with cameras at the border.

Regardless, we still have an image problem. Let’s not repeat the mistaken anti-poverty programs of the past after this most recent overexposure.

The Oral Histories are quite varied and include interviews with author Denise Giardina and Warren McGraw, the former state Supreme Court justice from Wyoming County. Due to limited space, I opted to critique only the photographs for this article.

David G. Allen

Clarksburg, WV


"Not All Photographs Tell a True Story" originally appeared in the February 9, 2007 issue of the West Virginia State Journal and was re-printed in the February 12, 2007 issue of the (Clarksburg, WV) Exponent-Telegram.




Copyright 1990-2007  David G. Allen