Gems of the Backlist: ‘The Appalachian Photographs of Earl Palmer’

Here at the University Press of Kentucky, we recently completed an initiative to digitize all of the books that we’ve published since our founding in 1943. It was a lot of work going through more than 1300 books, but it’s been a process full of fun surprises and astounding discoveries. Best of all, every now and then, there was a book that we just couldn’t put down—a book so good we just can’t resist sharing it with you again:

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“Palmer has given us the best view we will ever have of life and work in the Southern Appalachians. . . . His magnificent collection of photographs preserves the old way of life for us to study and ponder.”—Harry Caudill, author of Night Comes to the Cumberlands

For more than fifty years, mountain-born Earl Palmer traveled the Southern Appalachians with his camera, recording his personal vision of the mountain people and their heritage. Over these year he created, in several thousand photographs, a distinctive body of work that affirms a traditional image of Appalachia—a region of great natural beauty inhabited by a self-sufficient people whose lives are notable for simplicity and harmony.

 The Appalachian Photographs of Earl Palmer collects more than 120 representative photographs from the photographer’s collection. Jean Haskell Speer, who was emerita director of the Appalachian Studies Program at Virginia Tech, conducted extensive interviews with Palmer to write a biographical and critical commentary. Palmer’s photographs, Speer argues, are significant cultural statements that depict not so much a geographical region as a particular idea of Appalachia.

from the preface by Jean Haskell Speer:

“Earl has spent a lifetime, as he puts it, “conjuring” Appalachia, creating a rich and complex Appalachian vision in pictures. He believes the highest and best vision of Appalachia is rooted in its past, made manifest in its traditional culture and in those persons who remain emblems of the past in the present. In fact, Earl’s photographs may be said to constitute a kind of mountain manifesto, a public declaration of his intention to create a particular Appalachian world.

Earl has photographed Appalachia according to his world view. He has seen the mountaineer as both historically real and eternally mythic. He has made a photographic record of what has been real, if now only remembered, and he has created a vision of Appalachia’s past as he wishes it to be remembered. Earl has understood the power of the photographic image to preserve and to persuade, especially to build a rhetorically powerful argument through repeated and consistent images.

The photographs chosen for this volume from Earl’s collection of twenty to thirty thousand negatives represent the mainstream of his work. They include some of his most critically acclaimed and popular photographs, some historically and culturally valuable photographs, and photographs that illustrate Earl’s concept of “Appalachianness.” The photographs were made over a period of more than fifty years from 1936 to 1988. Geographically, they represent the heartland of Southern Appalachia, covering portions of Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. . . .

For most of his photographs Earl writes extensive captions that are intended to be evocative more often than informational. They are narratives that mix historical fact with Earl’s imagination in short vignettes about mountain life.”

We’ve selected a few photos to share here, but many more await in The Appalachian Photographs of Earl Palmer.

click the images to view full-size.

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