For the past 41 years I have been making photographs as a way of exploring the world in which we live. I attempt through my photographs to create a more humanized world. I began in the 1960s when people throughout the nation were marching in the streets for civil rights and peace. I considered myself an abstract expressionist painter and.sculptor. But with paint or steel, I couldnšt clearly communicate what I saw and felt about what was going on in the world around me. With photography, however, I discovered, I could. I could frame aspects of reality within the rectangle of my viewfinder, and abstract that reality into tones of chiaroscuro to capture the emotional and ideological experience of the demonstrations and those intense times in which I too was a participant. I wanted to make photographs that revealed the humanity and dignity among the forgotten, the mistreated, and the toilers in our society. I photographed in inner-city communities where I worked as a New York City teacher of at risk adolescents for thirty-five years. Montage of a Dream Deferred, a book of poems by Langston Hughes, inspired me. I wanted to make photographs of a humanity that persevered despite, or perhaps in resistance to the oppressive realities within these inner-city neighborhoods.
What began as a ten-day trip in 1968 became fourteen years of my visiting and photographing in coal mines, miners' homes and communities in the hills and "hollers" of West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, south western Virginia, and western Pennsylvania. I was attracted by the rich mountain heritage that included the Underground Railroad, abolitionism and the coal minersš collective struggle for more than a century to make life better for themselves, their families and the American working people.
In 1992 and again in 1997 I visited and photographed in Mongolia, a developing nation in the Central Asian steppe, little known to the people of the United States. Ten years after my first meeting with the Mongol Ambassador to the United Nations in 1981, arrangements were finally made for me to photograph in Mongolia. Sponsorship was provided by Mongoliašs Peoplešs Rights Newspaper. The second trip was hosted by Balkhav, the director of Ulanbator TV and his wife Ariuuna. My wife Alice and I met them in New York where we first became friends. At their request, we kept their twelve and a half year old son Chinguun with us for seven weeks after they returned home. In the land of Chinggis Khan, I wanted to photograph Mongoliašs ancient nomadic heritage, its Buddhist heritage, its recent 70 year communist past, its current period of transition, and its indomitable spirit as Mongolia enters the twenty-first century.
When I retired from teaching in the year 2000 I began photographing demonstrations again, this time limiting my focus to New York City. With the encouragement of a commission from the Appalachian College Association in 2002, and an Alicai Patterson Foundation Fellowship in 2004 I have been revisiting Appalachia. In addition to extending my previous work on miners and coalfield communities, I have added a focus on mountaintop removal strip mining, and other destructive environmental practices of coal companies that have increasingly been threatening the very existence of these communities. I am focusing on the people in these threatened communities, their lives, struggles, and persevering humanity.
I see my work as part of a continuum in the history of social documentary art photography. Among those whose work inspired me are: Eugene Atget, Lewis Wicks Hine, Paul Strand, Dorothea Lange, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, Walter Rosenblum, Roy DeCarava, W. Eugene Smith and Robert Frank. I have tried to make photographs that celebrate the human spirit.
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