“The Appalachian Portfolio, 1959-1963: Photographs by Andrew Stern,” a collection of black-and-white photos depicting life 50 years ago in Kentucky’s hardscrabble coal mining country, is on display through Oct. 15 at the University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.
It is the collection’s first West Coast showing.
The exhibit, free and open to the public, features 27 of the more than 900 Appalachian photos taken by Stern, now a professor emeritus at the journalism school. After reading a January 1959 New York Times story about a tough Christmas in Appalachia, Stern felt compelled to visit Kentucky’s bleak coal mining district and record life there.
“I was very excited,” Stern recalled recently, “because no one else was photographing this story.”
While other documentary photographers have followed Stern’s Appalachian footsteps, most critics contend that few have matched his images’ harsh honesty and unmistakable humanity.
Many of Stern’s photos appeared in “What Price Poverty?,” a Public Broadcasting System documentary that he produced in 1964. That same year, President Lyndon Johnson officially launched his trail-blazing social programs known collectively as the War on Poverty. Other photos from the collection also were included as visual testimony in a Congressional hearing on poverty and were credited with helping to refocus concern about Appalachian families whose economic and environmental devastation was largely overlooked after the federal government’s recovery efforts of the Great Depression.
Stern, the former director of the Graduate School of Journalism’s broadcast news and documentary program, will give a public lecture about the exhibition and his work at 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 16, in the North Gate Hall Library.
The program will feature clips from his Emmy-nominated “What Price Poverty?,” as well as a presentation of new, color photos Stern took on a 2008 return to Appalachia.
“Stern’s photographs are socially concerned, but they do not reflect common stereotypes of mid-20th century rural poverty, nor do they depict residents of Appalachia as the ‘exotic other,'” said Kate Black, archivist and special collections librarian at the University of Kentucky, which showed Stern’s photos in 2007.
“Stern’s eastern Kentuckians are neither relics of the past, nor depraved aberration,” Black continued. “His body of Appalachian work does not contain a single photograph of a soiled child pressed against a dirty window peering forlornly out to a world she can only dream of inhabiting. Instead, it includes a portrait of a girl outside her bare-bones home, finger-painting on a warm spring day as her dog relaxes nearby. The facts of her material existence are not hidden, but neither is the presence of her creative spirit.”
Writing about the University of Kentucky exhibit in a 2007 issue of The Daily Yonder, journalist Thomas N. Bethell said that Stern “saw the destitution and the hope, the desperation and the grit, the exhaustion and the beauty – the entire fabric – and captured it better, I think, than anyone else.” Bethell wrote that, “like the very best of the Farm Security Administration photographs from the 1930s, there is nothing patronizing about Stern’s images.”
Stern acknowledged the timeliness of the Appalachia portfolio’s revival at a time when Appalachia once again is producing headlines about mining disasters, environmental degradation and health disparities, and when economic frailty is at a level of increased public awareness.
Stern studied photography in New York in the 1950s with Hans Namuth, who was known for portraits of some of that period’s most noted abstract expressionist painters, such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. He said he also was influenced by famed Great Depression era photographer Walker Evans.
Stern became an award-winning broadcast journalist and documentary producer for ABC News and for the Public Broadcasting System. Among his many awards is a George Polk Award, one of journalism’s highest honors, for his 1982 documentary, “How Much is Enough? Decision Making in the Nuclear Age.” He also won a Peabody Award in 1968 for “Soul!,” a black variety and public affairs program.
Stern taught at the Graduate School of Journalism for 25 years and inaugurated the school’s broadcast, documentary and photography programs.
His coal country photos, originally intended for display in film documentaries or magazines, have been scanned and digitized to make them suitable for exhibits. This and other work can be viewed online.