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The Appalachian Portfolio: A Comment

"In the late 1950s and early ’60s, the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky were locked in the grip of an economic collapse almost as savage as the Great Depression. Mechanization and dwindling demand for coal killed off thousands of mining jobs in an area where no other jobs were to be had. But few Americans knew or – truth to tell – cared.


To see Andrew Stern’s photographs today is to be forcefully carried back to a moment in time when miners’ children were going to school without food and men thought they were lucky to get work in a murderous dog hole for a few dollars a day, a few days a month. But there is more to these photographs than simple documentation, powerful as it is. Like the very best of the Farm Security Administration photographs from the 1930s, there is nothing patronizing about Stern’s images. They are stunning in the obvious respect he has for his subjects. He meets them at eye level and gives them the gift of immortality.

A personal note: This was the Eastern Kentucky that I encountered when I first arrived in 1963 and began reporting for Tom and Pat Gish at The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, embarking on an editorial relationship that continues to this day. Andrew 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."

Thomas N. Bethell 

Journalist. Washington D.C.

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"Stern’s photographs are socially concerned but they do not reflect common stereotypes of mid-twentieth century rural poverty, nor do they depict residents of Appalachia as the 'exotic other.' Stern’s eastern Kentuckians are neither relics of the past nor depraved aberrations. 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’t 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 dogs relax nearby. The facts of her material existence are not hidden but neither is the presence of her creative spirit.


Stern captured on film a particular sociological/historical moment in the Appalachian coal fields but did so before these same subjects were represented by a media lens that more often than not—no matter how well-intentioned--tended to portray Appalachians as poverty objects, available for consumption on the nightly news or in weekly news magazines. Andrew Stern captured with his lens the last moments before an iconic Appalachia became forever emblazoned on the American cultural consciousness."


Kate Black 

Archivist, University of Kentucky

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