A portrait of Appalachia - 1973 onward

x-ray

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This year marks 72 years since my family moved from a tiny coal and oil community in Southern IL to the town of Oak Ridge Tn right in the heart of Appalachia. You might not think Oak Ridge would be much of an improvement but Oak Ridge is the site of three (AEC) Department of Energy facilities. One where my dad was employed as a mechanical engineer was the site where the uranium was refined for the two atomic bombs used in WWII. The second facility is Oak Ridge National Lab where energy, advanced computer research and sub atomic particle researcher is conducted as well as a leading producer of trans uranium elements and radioisotopes. The third is a top secret facility engaged in nuclear weapons research and plasma physics. At the time I lived there everything was government owned and there were more PhD’s per capita than any other place in the US.

But just a 45 minutes drive into the mountains took you to another world. The first images were taken fifty years ago this year. The community is in a remote part of the Cumberlands and was the site of Brushy Mountain Prison, the states maximum security facility known for housing James Early Ray, the assassin of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. The town is Petros where I often visited and photographed the people and community.

Here are a few images from the town in 1973. More images to come of other areas in Appalachia.

I mage a few adjustments to these images on my phone so if they don’t look right on your phone or computer please let me know.
 

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These are from surrounding counties and were shot from the late 60’s through 2010.

Faith is a big part of Appalachian culture.
 

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More faces of Appalachia.
 

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Another part of the culture that was ever present as I grew up. Clinton TN is a small town just a few miles from where I grew up. Clinton was High School was one of the first racially integrated schools in the nation and where the KKK dynamited the school and completely destroyed it. The feeling was that some would rather their children not go to school as to go with black students. Fortunately times and attitudes have changed.
 

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A few images around the area from the 60’s to early 2000’s. Most are gone now.

This year marks 70 years since I made my first images with my mothers 620 Ansco box camera.
 

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A few more from around the area but most no longer exist.
 

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Very glad to have this sampler available. Good suggestions above, too. I too would like the opportunity to buy a collection of your images.
 
Thanks very much! I’ve had quite a few requests for a book but the cost is prohibitive without a grant.

The TN State Museum purchased a group of them and the East Tn Historical Association museum houses a large collection of around 250 11x14 Archival Gelatin Silver prints. They established a special collection and have 98 archival 11x14’s framed and crated that are loaned to other museums. The show toured museums for seven years but I’m not sure whether it’s still on the road.

Two weeks ago I proposed a second show so we’ll see. I’d like to do another 100 prints and see if we can get a grant to do a coffee table book. Just guessing I’d estimate $40-60K to do a run that makes it practical which would include design and prepress work. A friend got a grant and did I believe 10,000 books and it ran in the mid $30K range and that was fifteen or so years ago. We’ll see.

I guess I have over 100,000 film images shot over 70 years. I’ve willed the entire archive to the history centers special collection when I pass. No rush!!! But they’ll be properly cared for and I stipulated they not be used for commercial use, just educational use.

I do sell archival gelatin silver but they’re expensive.

Thanks again for your kind words. There’ll be more coming soon.
 
This is so amazing and cool. George Went Hensley has had a really long lasting influence.

M
George and his wife started the practice just a short drive south of where I live. Cleveland Tn was the place and I think it was in the 20’s when he and his wife were driven from the church (church of God?) over serpent handling. I need to refresh my memory on this though.

I’ve been to probably more than 50 holiness services and watched members get bitten by rattlesnakes and handle cobras. I knew several that had been bitten with one claiming 148 times. One member was bitten on the face and died 15 minutes later. A man two feet from me was bitten while I watched. Another man in front of me a couple of feet was handling g a cobra. The preacher of the church was bitten in a later service and died the next day.

There are very few churches practicing this now. I only know of two or three. The preacher that helped me unfortunately passed away exactly one month ago today from a heart attack at age 67. It was unrelated to serpent handling. His death most likely closed the door on making more images although I have hundreds of very good images. Generally the churches are very closed to outsiders and operate very quietly so as to not draw attention so it’s unlikely that I’ll gain access to another.

Besides serpent handling they used torches on themselves and drank poison.

The missing finger was from gangrene due to an untreated copperhead bite. Traditionally they don’t seek medical attention but the younger members are more often getting help. Many families have lost family members to poisoning and serpent bites.

One photo shows the preacher using a propane torch on his hand and the other his sock foot on a copperhead.
 

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