If you're lucky, you're thinking about mountains -- high enough to reach for the stars, low enough to be forested from hollow to peak. You might know something about the hills' lush summer greens and the stark beauty of winter's bare trees and cottony snow. Or you might be thinking about fiddles and cloggers and Dr. Ralph Stanley. Or Affrilachians. That's good, too.
If you're unlucky, you're thinking about hillbillies, moonshiners, and deep, grinding poverty. If you are, you've got plenty of company. Few stereotypes are as widely accepted and enduring as those about the people of Appalachia. If you're thinking along these lines, there's a good chance that you're also thinking in black and white.
It's possible that nowhere else in America has attracted as many photographers intent on documenting the problems that the people confront. And from Farm Security Administration photographers of the 1930s and '40s -- Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, and Marion Post Wolcott, for instance -- to contemporary art market heroes -- like Shelby Lee Adams -- they've tended to shoot in gritty (and often grim) black and white. The look seems so appropriate to the weathered faces and tumble-down shacks that inhabit many of the photos that it's sometimes hard to imagine Appalachian photography any other way.
It's hard for me, anyway. But it's not, thank God, for LaNola Stone.
LaNola Stone: Ferragamo
"Appalucci" is Stone's quietly subversive portrait series about children in Stinking Creek, Kentucky. She photographs them in a style that reminds me of high-end portrait photography or the catalogs of expensive clothiers. Those connections aren't accidental. The lighting setups are sophisticated, and the children wear an item of designer clothing that Stone has given them to wear and to keep.
Like most long-term projects, "Appalucci," which is still work-in-progress, has roots that extend in many different directions. They begin with Stone's desire to explore the world visually. As she puts it, she wanted "to go somewhere I'd never been and learn from what I saw." Appalachia suggested itself, in part, because she feels an affinity for the region as a product of the mountain west, and, in part, because it was relatively close to her home in New York City. But knowing where she wanted to work was one thing; deciding what she wanted to say about it was something else entirely.
Before she visited Appalachia for the first time, Stone watched film documentaries about Appalachia and looked at the work of photographers who had preceded her. Nothing she saw inspired her, she says. "It seemed like the same story over and over again. These backwoods people..."
LaNola Stone: von Furstenberg
Inspiration came at home, in New York's Central Park. Watching the children of wealthy Upper East Siders play, while unself-consciously wearing designer clothes, made Stone wonder what would happen if she gave Appalachian children the same things to wear. The ideas was "loose," she says, but it gave her a place to start: "Would it be so crazy to give these clothes to a child and see what they would do with them? Would they trounce around in the in a pair of $800 boots? Well, why not? They're boots."
When Stone packed her cameras, lighting equipment, and donated clothing into her rented car, precisely where she was going to shoot was still an open question. "I didn't actually have a location in mind," she says. "I knew Appalachia, and I knew Kentucky, because that's were the documentaries I watched were shot. But I really didn't want to go to the same places. So I just drove into that general area, and I stopped when I felt I was where I needed to be. I didn't really choose it; I felt like it chose me."
LaNola Stone: Hermes
"It," as I've mentioned, was the community of Stinking Creek, Kentucky, not far from the point at which the state's border meets those of Virginia and Tennessee. Although, Stone says, "people were pretty resistant at first," it turned out to be a great location. Locals that she met along the way introduced her to parents and children who were happy to participate in the project.
Stone told me that she wanted the portraits to be a collaboration between herself and the children. "I knew I wanted what they had to give. It was about setting the scene and then letting them do what they wanted to do."
She didn't tell the kids that she was handing them designer clothes. "I didn't want anyone treating them like something special," she says. "I gave the clothes to the children to keep and wear as they saw fit.'
LaNola Stone: Gucci
When Stone says that "Appalucci" is "about displacement," she's talking about herself and her props. With roots in California and Utah, Stone is an outsider in the eastern Kentucky hills that provide "Appalucci's" setting. The clothes -- Gucci, von Furstenberg, etc. -- that the children in her photos wear are things that most have never seen and that many families in the region could never afford.
But it seems to me that there's another kind of displacement going on in this project. The look and feel of Stone's images are displacing stereotypes and photographic conventions about Appalachia.
LaNola Stone: Coach
As an historian of both Africa and photography, I've spent a lot time thinking about the way that stereotypes work, the harm they do, and how they can be challenged. Some of the interesting ideas along these lines comes from Stuart Hall, the cultural theorist. He suggests that challenging and disempowering stereotypes shouldn't be a simple matter of replacing negative images with positive ones. That's not likely to be effective. Instead, he says, a better strategy would be "to occupy the very terrain which has been saturated by fixed and closed representation and to try to use the stereotypes... against themselves...."
Even though Stone didn't set out to confront stereotypes or to deconstruct them, it seems to me that in "Appalucci" she's doing what Hall suggested. She's turning Appalachian stereotypes against themselves.
LaNola Stone: Missoni
Stone has occupied the stereotypes' "terrain," to use Hall's words. "Appalucci's" territory is the hills and hollows that, stereotypically, are home to poverty, rural backwardness, and "hillbillies." Yet her photos are anything but conventional, and they challenge the stereotypes by disrupting them on their home turf.
Conventionally, the photography that comes out of this region emphasizes the otherness of the "natives." That is, it highlights the ways that they differ from the middle- and upper-class viewers of documentary work in newspapers, magazines, and books, on websites, and in galleries and museums. They've tended to be mostly black and white photos that depict dirt and disorder, strange customs, emaciated, diseased, and dissipated bodies.
Stone, on the other hand, finds beauty and joy in the midst of poverty. (Anyone who has ever been poor will understand the truth in this.) Pastels, not black and white, are, for her, the colors of authenticity. She doesn't believe that elaborate lighting schemes and six-foot octoboxes are only for the rich. She knows that we can look up at poor kids (literally), just as easily as we can look down on them.
LaNola Stone: Fendi
"Appalucci" is, of course, a photography project, not a political tract. It's driven by Stone's intelligence, skills, intuition, and, above all, her eye. It's the product of her collaboration with a bunch of remarkable kids. But it does ask us to see Appalachia differently -- and to think and feel differently about it, too.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, "Appalucci" is a work-in-progress. I can't wait to see how it evolves.
LaNola Stone: Fendi (alternate)
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A few afterthoughts...
Over the years, many people have looked at the way that Appalachia has been stereotyped and at the consequences those stereotypes have had for the region and its people. Elizabeth Barret is one of my favorites. Her rich, complex, deeply moving film, Stranger with a Camera, examines the 1967 murder of Canadian filmmaker Hugh O'Connor, in southeastern Kentucky, by a local man who was motivated, in part, by anger over the media images of Appalachian backwardness that had become inescapable during the War on Poverty.
Back Talk from Appalachia: Confronting Stereotypes is a collection of academic essays and personal memoirs that looks at the ways mountain people have been, as Dwight B. Billings puts is, "acceptable targets for hostility, projection, disparagement, scapegoating, and contempt." In the book's foreword, Ronald D. Eller neatly explains the political power and cultural persistence of stereotypes. The "prevailing images of Appalachia blame the victim for Appalachia's problems... [and] trivialize complex political and economic issues facing the region to the level of personality traits and cultural quirks. ...such images allow the rest of America to keep the region at arms length, rather than to confront the systemic problems of a dependent economy, environmental decay, and institutional weakness that challenge mountain communities today."
If you're thinking that this kind of stereotyping is history, please read Alexandra Brander's Salon article from last week, "America's Favorite Joke is Anything But Funny: MTV's 'Buckwild' Joins a Long Tradition of Skewering 'Hillbillies."
Finally, I should mention Hollow: An Interactive Documentary that's being produced in neighboring West Virginia by a team led by Elaine McMillion. It's taking on stereotypes in a wonderfully creative and collaborative way. Jason Headley, one of Hollow's writers, puts it this way:
Most of the thoughts and opinions of our state are formed by outside forces looking in. A project like this gives us the opportunity to do the exact opposite. To let people see West Virginia from the perspective of the people who live here. We can show the good and the bad. And the surprising thing for most people will probably be that the good is awfully good. And that the bad is much more real and nuanced than the clichés and stereotypes.