I’ve been thinking a lot lately about photography and Appalachia. This is due greatly to the fact that photographer Stacy Kranitz’s pictures about Appalachia called “Regression to the Mean” were perhaps subjected to an unsavory edit by some folks at CNN. Roger May’s blog has kept me abreast on the transpiring story and viewer’s responses to the edits, as well as his own insights about Kranitz’s photos in a series of posts called “Perpetuating the Visual Myth of Appalachia.” I’m very grateful that May has picked up this discussion, as well as John N. Wall, Joerg Colberg at Consecitous, and The Revivalist.
I live at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains and I couldn’t help but be struck by this story, the responses, and of course, the pictures. It’s a part of American culture I know a bit about and feel affected by in North Carolina. In fact, I wrote something regarding all this almost a year ago. Before I speak about Kranitz’s images, I was pointed to this photo story by several of my colleagues weeks before I saw Stacy Kranitz’s series about Appalachia. It’s a story about Owsley County, Kentucky, the poorest county in the United States, by Getty photographer Mario Tama, and how this particular county celebrates a high school prom. Tama follows and documents local students and citizens around Booneville preparing for the prom, some of the trail rides which give the town most of its funds, and the environment of the county.
What struck me about this story was the wide angle lens with which this story was made. It’s very jarring and is a unique feature to photography as a means of storytelling. When figures are put at the edges of the wide angle lens, they become distorted, enlarged, made nearly grotesque through lenticular imagery. The bodies seen in Tama’s story bend around the curvature of the lens and the structures bend along with them to create an effect that almost alienate the viewer from the subject. Or at least, that’s how I felt. The environment didn’t seem at all real, as I would see it. I wasn’t sure exactly what to make of this use of the wide angle lens’ barrel distortion seen in almost every single image. It becomes Tama’s signature to the series which works on some levels to encompass Booneville, Kentucky’s citizens in their environment but on another level, adds, what I see as, a degree of negativity to the area. It perpetuates the myth of Appalachia I think Roger May was alluding to in Stacy Kranitz’s images.
Distorted forms in front of the camera remind me of another photographer who devoted his career to documenting Appalachian culture. That’s Shelby Lee Adams. While I’m not intending to propose a direct comparison of Tama to Adams, I do mean to say that they use the camera in a similar way to document a specific geographical location. While their intentions lie in different realms, part of what both men are saying with their cameras comes through in the way in which they document. Specifically, with the use of a close-up, wide angle’d lens view of things. I’m not saying this technique is incorrect form or approach; what I am saying is that when it’s implemented, it manufactures a perception of reality that isn’t readily available to the human eye. The photographer needs to be aware of what the camera is saying as well and how that might help or hurt his or her vision.
Back to Stacy Kranitz’s pictures. The discourse regarding her series is rooted in CNN’s edit of them: showing only their website, images of the people in KKK garb, burning crosses, strippers, as means of perpetuating a vision of Appalachian culture that’s been heavily mythologized and sometimes seen in a hateful light. What initially attracts photographers is nothing but positive. Appalachian culture is something very special and rooted in many traditions that harken back to the beginnings of America. What photographer and storyteller wouldn’t want to experience such a unique lifestyle right in America? And if the recent changes coming to the Appalachian region of North Carolina are any indication of how things are going to be in the future, then it’s a fading culture.
But what do Kranitz’s pictures show me about Appalachia? From her images, I see a very dim view of things. The backgrounds and foregrounds seem almost somewhere in an underexposure or strobe light. It feels physically and metaphorically like a dark place that deters me from what’s lurking the dark edges. Through visiting friends and family in the Appalachian mountains over the years, I know my version of Appalachia is very different from Kranitz’s.
Artist’s visions of a place or people are very important. A photographer’s view of the world is how we know it and that’s a gift that needs to be heavily considered while shooting and presenting. Whether or not it perpetuates a vision already seen, it’s always unique to one voice and one photographer. Part of the difficulty for photographer’s lies in the editing and how we share a truncated view of what a longer sentence to an audience. What’s on a wall or in an online gallery can change or spark a whole other conversation. Like with editing, the pictures themselves must get at the artist’s vision to a tee. What must also be taken in to account is not only the inherent way being an outsider in an environment changes the way the subjects act, is the way the camera itself alters the view. What wide angle lenses exhibit, what dark areas and underexposures connotate, what, stylistically, one is saying with the camera on a psychological level. Photographers and artists have an important responsibility to convey a message to the world around them.
I’m grateful the many discussions surrounding Kranitz’s pictures have sparked a longer conversation on representation of Appalachian culture. It’s long overdue. What I think lies at the heart of all this dialogue is the immense power a photographer has over a subject he or she is interested in photographing. Like most things, I believe it must be well thought out, especially if what you’re saying is regarding a group of people or unique part of the world. Even if that’s not what an artists’ intention is.