Sunday, November 20, 2011

Photographing rural America

Luceo Images, a photographer-owned cooperative, recently funded a group documentary project on rural American called "Few and Far Between." The group project focuses on industrial and population changes in rural America. They write on their website that "[t]his change in industry, however, does not represent an overall repurposing of rural communities. Instead there has been a slow population decline in farming-based counties throughout the middle states of America offset by significant growth in Western states that boast alternative economies."

The photographers describe their work as challenging the preconceptions about a dwindling rural America. They acknowledge the shift in rural industry away from agriculture, but do not believe this indicates that rural America is losing its population. They seek to show through their photographs that this shift in industry has resulted in slow growth, fueled by an increasingly decentralized economy.

The project began in early 2010 during a photography trip to Lebanon, Kansas (population 218). You can see the photographs from the trip to Lebanon here. In late August of this year, the same five photographers continued to document life in rural America while traveling through Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Nevada in a rented RV.

Photograph from Luceo's Few and Far Between Project
The photographs taken during this trip show a real sense of joy that is present in rural America. The photographs are colorful and depict an active working community where the subjects are often smiling.  These images are a stark contrast to most rural photography, which typically depicts vast, empty landscapes or "hillbillies" seeming especially unhappy.

Shelby Lee Adams, a photographer who is best known for his images of rural Appalachia, is often criticized for his portrayal of life in Appalachia. Critics argue that his photography perpetuates negative stereotypes of rural America. The photograph below, called "The Hog Killing," is often used as an example of how Adams exploits rural stereotypes. In his blog, Adams admits to staging the slaughtered pig in the background. He also admits to sometimes staging the facial expressions of his subjects.

Photograph from Adams' Napier Family Portfolio
In a film about Adams' photography, entitled The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia, Adams argues:
I'm photographing from a culture I'm from, I know about and I'm trying to express myself with that culture. So it's not an objective document, it's not an object. It's me, it's life and it's my subjects' lives who are my friends, who I love and care about.
Regardless of Adams' good intentions, Lucero and other rural communities are working to challenge these stereotypes. The University of Kentucky's Appalachian Center hosted a photography contest earlier this year, called "Re-Imaging Appalachia." The Center was looking for photographs that challenge the stereotype of Appalachia, perhaps in response to Adams's work. The finalists submitted photographs of bustling communities that are full of life and much less solemn than the Appalachia as depicted by Adams.

Lucero is hoping to continue documenting life in rural America are is trying to raise additional funds for the project by selling a handmade book that they describe as "one part travel scrapbook, one part personal documentation, one part fine art assemblage." The book contains artifacts and instant camera photographs compiled by each member during the road trip. It is a beautiful collection of found objects and other relics, displaying a very personal look at each member's experience traveling in the RV this past August. With a price tag of $3,500, it's tempting to schedule my own road trip to photograph rural America myself.


Scarecrow said...

We had an amazing photographer at The World in Coos Bay, who could capture people's expressions better than any photographer I have worked with. But whenever the Associated Press called, asking permission to circulate a photo he'd taken, it invariably featured the wide expanses of Coos County. This wasn't a slight, I don't think. It's just a reflection that big towns don't have the outdoor beauty that's found in rural areas. So in a way, rural people are stereotyped in part because of the beauty around them. Urban people want to see the landscapes, not the people who live near them.

JT said...

After taking a look at Luceo's work, I can understand why his vivid photos might perpetuate stereotypes, although whether such stereotypes are necessarily negative are another issue, as you point out. In contrast, Robb Hill shot photos of his rural hometown out of a sense of nostalgia ( They are in black and white rather than in color, but they convey a sense of serenity rather than unhappiness. It is interesting how the different motives of each photographer affects how they choose to portray their rural subjects. Regardless of how the photos are received, I think they at the very least still draw attention to the rural lifestyle.

Jason said...

I think Scarecrow nailed it by pointing out urban inhabitants desire to see the rural landscape rather than rural people. Stop at almost any book store and cruise the "coffee table" book section. The majority of the titles and themes depict rugged mountains, rolling hills, forests, and streams. The rural mystique is alive and well. Plus it sells well to those that can't get out of their urban environment. With a $3,500 price tag it seems Luceo is banking on the rural mystique to makes sales as well.