Once upon a time, there was the idea that three young artists could document the life of a whole state. Today, there's proof.
When did life move indoors?
It was about the same time that people quit washing their cars with the garden hose and women stopped wearing curlers in public — sometime after 1976.
Rough Road, a thrilling photography show now on view at the Frazier History Museum in Louisville, captures life across the state of Kentucky before we all beached in front of the TV, long, long before the Internet began sucking the marrow out of local culture. We’re talking thirty years ago, back when there was smoking on the job. There were phone booths!
The exhibition’s 85 photographs are just a sliver of the thousands of pictures taken by three then-very-young photographers, Ted Wathen and Bob Hower of Louisville and Bill Burke of Boston. Through Wathen’s initiative, the threesome had landed a grant from the also-young Kentucky Arts Commission and National Endowment for the Arts to document all 120 counties in the state for the nation’s Bicentennial.
That goal stretched into a three-year mission. “The first year’s work wasn’t really all that good,” Wathen, now age 64, says. “I think what happened was we all went in with preconceived notions, and they didn’t really relate to the subject matter. They related to our idea of what art is.”
Wathen had just earned an MFA degree from University of Florida, studying with surrealist and technical wizard Jerry Uelsmann. He had met Bob Hower earlier at Imageworks, a cutting edge photography center in Boston. Bill Burke, four years out of art school, was teaching in Boston at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts.
At this same time, art photography was just coming into its glory, “suddenly being credited in the major media,” says Wathen. “Before, it had been something journalists do.” For a century major art museums had generally ignored photographic work, but in the 1970s those attitudes changed dramatically. University art programs incorporated photography into the studio curricula and new schools like Louisville’s own Center for Photographic Studies opened. Fine art museums began collecting photographs in earnest. Ansel Adams became a household name.
In this cultural climate, with fledgling government programs that supported individual artists, Wathen’s idea of documenting Kentucky with an artistic eye behind the lens was a winner. And its promise to survey the whole state — tobacco farms and shopping centers, coon hunters and car dealers — was completely in keeping with the Bicentennial’s populist spirit.
But after hundreds of miles and many nights spent in their cars, reality began to wear the young artists wonderfully down. “The second and third year’s work was when it got really good,” says Wathen.
After photographing bridge painters in McCracken County and Derby parties in Louisville, pentacostal ministers and underage drinkers, black-lung victims and studs (both equine and human), the photographers underwent a kind of total immersion. As Wathen writes in the exhibition catalogue, “Originally we attempted to impose ourselves on Kentucky; in the end, Kentucky imposed itself on us.”
Bob Hower could never have staged what he captured one rainy afternoon in Perry County. In “Aftermath of a Family Dispute,” a state trooper, his face partially hidden by an upturned collar, looks into the glowering faces of three boys in their early teens. The eldest holds one hand on his hip in defiance, elbow aimed at the camera. Beneath an umbrella, three younger children gaze up at the officer gnawing their fingers and rapt with fear.
Bill Burke’s “Family at a Spring” taken in Brandenburg finds a young mother with her children at Buttermilk Falls. The very ordinary outing is suffused with mysticism. A toddler with blond curls holds up his tiny palms and looks into the camera with directness beyond his years – a gesture of iconic grace – as the stream of white water pours and foams above his head. His mother, holding the baby, has a soft, angelic smile; her hair pinned in giant curlers makes a Meade County halo.
While much has changed since the late seventies, there’s one shameful continuity. Ted Wathen’s photograph of the Peabody Mine in Muhlenberg County bares the hellish facts of large-scale strip-mining. A 22-million-pound shovel scrapes in the distance as the land in the foreground has been gouged and laid waste, reduced to an appalling plain of mud. Who could have guessed this was only the beginning, that mountaintop removal mining in Eastern Kentucky, ongoing, would far surpass the devastation of Peabody’s Paradise?
All three men went on to careers in photography. Wathen and Hower established Quadrant Photography in Jeffersonville, Indiana, just over the river from Louisville. Burke worked extensively in Southeast Asia in the ensuing years and continues to teach at the Museum of Fine Arts School, Boston.
The Frazier Museum Show, which runs through January 15, 2012, includes dozens of superb pieces. It’s glorious, but the Kentucky Documentary Photographic Projects warrants much more extensive and prolonged exposure. The current show is very much dominated by images from Appalachia. We wouldn’t have wanted to exclude any of these pictures but wished for many more from other parts of the state, regions which, in fact, have been far less documented than have Pike and Knott counties.
Wathen said that in choosing photos for the current show, “art trumped the documentary mission.” That also has meant that most of the photographs are of working class subjects, even though, Wathen reports, the project made many hundreds of photos in more middle-class environments: the then-newfangled condominums, shopping malls, and schools. But he contends that these photographs “weren’t all that revealing.” Really? And what about images of Kentucky’s rich? “Studying up” is hard, and seeing photographers this good attempt it would have been a revelation in itself.
Wathen acknowledges the influence photographs of the Farm Security Administration by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee. “Absolutely. That was our role model,” he says. “That and Robert Frank’s The Americans” with its “editorial twist.” The debt is most evident in the many images of poor families photographed on their front porches and pictures of hand-painted or weathered signs. We’re always a little dismayed when photographers rely too much on signage – as Walker Evans tended to do. There’s plenty of easy irony to be had here, but nothing like the rewards of Rough Road’s landscapes and human portraits. And, in the making, nothing like the effort required to photograph another person.
Could an endeavor like the Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project take place today? Surely it would in many ways be easier; digital photography would obviate most of these photographers’ labors, like hauling buckets of sodium sulfite to process the day’s Polaroid film and hanging negatives on a clothesline at a campsite. Even Kentucky roads aren’t quite as rough.
But there’s nothing like the late ‘70s’ public support for arts projects, either from government agencies or from corporate donors. In the late 1980s, outcry against controversial artists, most of them photographers, led to steep cuts in funding for the National Endowment and the end of federal grants to individual artists. Also, many of the Kentucky-owned companies that helped pay for this three-year effort are gone. Who would support a project of this scope today?
The money isn’t there, nor are there as many people out of doors to be photographed as they bathe in ponds, hand-tie tobacco, tend the pony or or just sit on the front porch. More fundamentally, our time of social fragmentation and insularity mitigates against the sense that three young photographers could be entrusted with representing honestly the scope of contemporary life.
Except, look. They did.
(Note: Photographers Ted Wathen and Bob Hower will give a gallery talk about this exhibition at the Frazier Museum, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2011, at 1:30 p.m. The Frazier History Museum is at 829 W. Main St., Louisville, KY.)