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Appalachia USA: Photographs, 1968-2009 Hardcover – November 30, 2013
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About the Author
Builder Levy's work has appeared in more than two hundred exhibitions, including over fifty one person shows. His photographs are in more than fifty public collections around the world. He has been awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Puffin Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Monographs of his work include Images of Appalachian Coalfields (1989) and Builder Levy Photographer (2005), and his photographs are featured in more than twenty books. He lives in New York City with his wife, Alice Deutsch.
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It is obvious that people in his photographs are more than “subjects” for Levy. Rather he “knows” them in a very humanistic and empathic way, and clearly, he holds both an intellectual and sensitive awareness of the history of the people in the region, especially the history of mining.
The richness of Levy’s images reveals that he is engaged emotionally and professionally with those he photographs, but yet it appears that some individuals are not aware of his presence as a photographer. This is obvious in the photos of coal miners at work. Gaining access to the interior of the mines is testament to the trust people inevitably must have developed in Levy as someone who was there to tell their stories.
One of my favorite Levy photos is Mae Phillips and her granddaughter, Jeanie. When I saw that photo, I reflected on a beautiful 1902 John Sargent Singer painting of Mrs. Knowles and her two sons. Mrs. Knowles is very elegant, and her dress and demeanor as well as that of her sons, tells us they are very wealthy; they feel very confident about the present and the future. When I gazed upon Levy’s image of Mae and her granddaughter, I thought of Singer's painting, and in my mind juxtaposed it alongside Levy’s photo as a visual representation of class differences. Unlike Mrs. Knowles, Mae and Jeanie are not adorned with exquisite fashions nor are they feeling that all is well in the moment, nor that it will be in the future. But Levy lets us know that despite class differences, they are just as beautiful; no embellishments; the simple dress; Jeanie's bare feet; the backdrop of a cornfield; and Jeanie's hand resting on her grandmother's wrist as Mae's arms envelop Jeanie. Levy’s images contain no references to the disparaging stereotypes of Appalachians held in our culture, and this is communicated by he has captured as a sense of pride and dignity in the grandmother.
I have read both non- fiction and fiction books about Appalachia. Through Levy’s powerful photographs, the numbers in academic books and the characters in the novels we read become real people, and we enter their lives, and hopefully, like Levy, feel more empathy for people in the region. I teach courses about social inequality, and I am anticipating that sharing and discussing Levy’s images with my students will result in more empathic individuals.