Outsiders have long fictionalized the narrative surrounding Appalachia. As a resident of West Virginia I have always been aware of the views others hold of my home, and they have guided me to create my own version of life in the hills. My Appalachia is a granulated depiction based on the false impressions of others, my idealizations and personal experiences.
Light plays an important role in how I understand this place. The warm southern sun creates a glow that pours over the mountains, rivers and forests creating long shadows, dark recesses and gray mists that blanket the landscape. This unique quality of light is inherent to the hills and provides a catalyst to the imagination—a backdrop that becomes both magnificent and eerie. It is its own character within my story of Appalachia.
The people who inhabit the photographs are my upper-middle class family and friends in West Virginia. They play slightly exaggerated roles of themselves within sets I have constructed using their homes, furniture and objects. After I create my depiction of each character I carefully assemble the images to build my concept of home. The end product is a strand of life pulled from the whole.
Since 2006, the annual Foam Talent Call has identified hundreds of talented photographers, from all corners of the globe, who have gone on to make their mark on the artistic landscape and pass from “newly discovered” to household names.
We’re proud to present a sampling of these talents’ work as well as some in-depth features on a few of our favorites. For our first interview subject, we have chosen the “not-so-documentary” photographer Aaron Blum. Across the rolling hills of his home in Appalachia, Blum has created a fascinating, and deeply personal, overview of this region—one that is defined as much by myth-making from within as it is from the outside.
Curious to find out more, managing editor Alexander Strecker reached out to Blum to find out more. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.
LC: How did the series Born and Raised begin? How did it develop? For some artists, working on a subject very close to them is the hardest thing there is! However, it seems like you have found rich material in your surroundings.
AB: What really started the whole thing was a moment, or evening, with my grandmother. We somehow got on the subject of lineage and I was talking about how I am German. (My last name is Blum, like Plum; which is German.) My grandmother looked at me and said, “You are not German, you are almost completely Irish!” I was shocked. We then spent the entire evening looking at photographs from over 120 years. She told me stories and showed me corresponding images—I was looking into the past and seeing who I was, who I am and who I may become. It was all a bit overwhelming to say the least. After that, Appalachian heritage quickly became an obsession.
About the same time was when I moved away from West Virginia to upstate New York. Like most people, I discovered my love of home right after I left it—but like other West Virginians, I find it’s a bit more jarring than that. There has been such a mass exodus of young people from the state, and the culture and family element is so strong that it creates a real desire to be back home. Outside of my home, people didn’t seem to understand anything about West Virginia or Appalachia in general. In earnest, they would ask stereotypical, slightly offensive questions such as “Do you guys really eat road kill?”
These jarring experiences mixed with my newly forged passion for history, lineage, family and all things Appalachia. The first thing I did was scan every one of the images my grandmother showed me and printed small versions of them and hung them salon-style in my office. There were enough that they went floor to ceiling, allowing me to obsessively stare at them (My wife called this my ” Beautiful Mind” period).
LC: What is your relationship with your subjects? How do they feel about your work and its success? Is it participative on their part? You say they “play slightly exaggerated roles of themselves”—whose directing, then?
AB: With Born and Raised, all the subjects are people I know extremely well. They are either my family or friends I have known my entire life. They are very happy for me and the success of the work. Sometimes, though, they are a little taken aback when the see some of the work online or hear that it is going somewhere they didn’t expect.
In general with this work, I have a distinctive way of thinking and seeing my home which I combine with my personal experiences (as well as a few stereotypes) to create my version of it. Concretely, this leads me to move furniture slightly, wait for the right time of day and treat the photograph like a movie set—but for just one shot. I do end up directing a bit, but all the directing comes from what normally exists there.
But I wouldn’t call any of this a document. It has truthful elements but it’s more about identity and building my own version of West Virginia—a version that has passed through my filter of truths and fictions.
LC: Have there been (unexpected) challenges to working so close to home? Are there times when you’ve needed to take a break and go shoot, I don’t know, street photos in LA? Still lifes in a studio? Something completely different, in other words?
AB: Directly after Born and Raised, I did feel the need to do something different. I wanted to explore something about Appalachia that I had my own stereotypes about and that I had no context of. So my idea was to document the Hare Krishna community that was about 30 minutes from my parents’ house in West Virginia. I spent a few years in their community, seeing what life was like as a Krishna. I loved the images and them as people, but the passion wasn’t there for me. I think that will be the last time I diverge so far from my normal working order. I just didn’t “feel” it. I don’t want to make straight documentary—I need to process things mentally before I decide to make an image.
For my Appalachian work, I haven’t had too many unexpected challenges. I think the biggest one is branching out from my home county in West Virginia and seeing what the rest of Appalachia looks like. At first I would take road trips and respond to things and make images. They were all terrible. I am not the world’s greatest “decisive moment” photographer. Still, this work gave me a sketch of what life was like in other pockets of the hills and that allowed me to have a clearer picture of what to make images of in the future.
Part of what helps, probably, is that I don’t actually shoot very much. All of my work is in film which means I am very deliberate. I plan and research way more than I shoot. I will put 24 hours of research and planning into one shot, and it will take me 45 minutes to make the image. For the most part, I know what I want before I’ve even left home.
As far as taking a break, I get sick of shooting in a certain style every so often, but never with Appalachia—somehow, my obsession with the area never fades. To mix it up, I try and take different approaches to the subject. For example, my new work A Guide To Folk Taxonomy is a little more conceptual. Also, that work partly came out of two years spent learning about regional dialects and folk taxonomies, which then lead me to read about myths and language in Papua New Guinea. In other words, the avenues are never-ending.
Fundamentally, I find there is so much to understand: issues of identity, heritage, culture, regionalism, stereotypes and the mountains themselves. I think that finding out what it means to be Appalachian is something I will do for the rest of my life, and even if I attempt that with diligence and honesty, I won’t achieve it. I just want to try to come close.
LC: As you’ve written, Appalachia is steeped in mythology (both internal and external). Much of that is oral—storytelling, folk music, dialect. How then does photography, which is silent, work as a storytelling mechanism in conveying Appalachia?
This is what I want more than anything, to be a part of the Appalachian storytelling tradition, and I believe I can achieve that with images. I believe visual literacy and conveying meaning to the viewer is the single most important aspect to photography. If you give away too much information, people understand it too quickly and move on. If it is too vague, people find it pretentious and needlessly artsy. It is a fine line but sticking to it is imperative.
I think all good images have some type of story to tell—but not every image has to be a straightforward narrative. For example, so much of the work in FOAM is conceptual, but it still has a story or idea to explore, and so many of those ideas are new and exciting. I clearly love good narrative-driven work, like Greg Crewdson and Jeff Wall, but I am also completely enamored with artists like Taryn Simon, Christian Patterson, and Todd Hido. Some of these conceptually driven stories are the most complex and if you take the time explore them, they are overwhelmingly compelling.
As far as conveying the story of Appalachia through photographs, I think it’s easy. The landscape itself is the catalyst for the storytelling. The way that it looks, and how the mist and light pour over it just facilitates a natural backdrop for the imagination.
LC: In your artist’s statement, you go to lengths to emphasize that your work is just “a strand of life” and a “granulated depiction.” Do your photographs have any documentary weight or claims to truth? Is the question of “documentary” (of “truth”) important to you?
So I get asked this a lot—and I think other documentary photographers do as well. I was just on a panel with a few other “documentary” image-makers and we all felt this crushing weight to be accurate. But unless you are a journalist, I don’t think people even consider your work as reliable, and even then it’s not completely honest. I am a firm believer that photographs are not truthful in nature, and it’s simply not possible for someone to include everything needed to tell the truth of a moment. In other words, even in the strictest form of documentary photography, there is always the decision of what to frame and what to leave out.
So, no, I am not a documentary photographer nor do I want to be. At the same time, all my images are derived from true experiences from living in the region, true stories from locals and from the participation of the residents. This is my version of life in Appalachia as I see it. Being respectful is important—being completely truthful is not.
LC: The FOAM Talents have been described as “21 artists [who] define the future of contemporary photography.” While some people feel worried about the future of the medium, others are filled with excitement and possibility. Do you think we have anything to be worried about?
As far as the death of photography goes, anyone who thinks it’s dying is blind. There are more images now than ever—who knows, perhaps even more images in the world than words! There are too many people participating in every genre of photography to let any aspect of it die.
Now, I understand the debate lies more in the concept of the image than the medium’s proliferation. But even from that perspective: change is good. Every time something new comes out, there is a contingent of people who say, “If this is the future of photography, I don’t want to be a part of it.” Fortunately, there is room for everyone and all kinds of taste within photography.
Although, visually, my work seems a bit different than the other FOAM Talents, I feel very close in process with them: our work involves research, thought and then the documenting of an idea. I don’t have time for images that are simply pretty. It reminds me of those old vacation photos you were forced to look at. Yes, images need to have aesthetic value, but if I can’t explore an idea, story or thought—so what?
—Aaron Blum, interviewed by Alexander Strecker