12 August 2020
12 August 2020 - Written by Laurence Cornet
In her series As It Was Give(n) To Me, documentary photographer Stacy Kranitz carves out a new photographic path, combining an array of languages to both confirm and undo stereotypical representations of the Appalachian region of the United States.
In 1963, US President John F. Kennedy formed a federal-state committee that came to be known as the President's Appalachian Regional Commission (PARC). Within this newly government-made geography, he aimed at fighting a war against poverty. Other counties were concerned by his initiative but only in Appalachia were the poor white. These were the 1960s: the civil rights movement was running at full tilt and the government didn’t want the two debates to conflate.
No more was needed for Appalachia to epitomise poverty. Photographers, journalists, and TV producers were sent there and to no other county to document poverty, all of them coming back with the same images of the destitute coal miner and his family living in shacks and eating very little. “What they ended up doing was creating this stereotype that the people could never get rid of”, photographer Stacy Kranitz says.
Since 2009, she has been working in the region. “It interested me a lot because the coal mining, this brutal extraction industry, was one thing that had raped the region; and there was this other kind of raping of the people and the land through the extraction of the image of poverty”, she explains. “Identity in this place is very loaded and photographers played a central role in creating that stigma.” A well-trained documentary photographer herself, Kranitz questioned this visual vocabulary and offered an alternative narrative of Appalachia, overlapping different periods of time.
Obsessively, she dived into six major archives and extracted black and white images from Daniel Boone, the American frontiersman who founded the first settlement in the region. “I believe that documentary photography is directly connected to the colonial agenda and I was interested in making sure that was very clear that I am part of that legacy”, Kranitz explains. She mixes this story with her own photographs – mystical mountainscapes along with genuine and posed portraits that both support the stereotype and undo it. “I'm not pretending that this is an insider portrait of Appalachia. I'm really trying to make a body of work that talks about the complicatedness of inside or outside relations. And Appalachia cannot exist without this mix”, she adds.
Even with her own photographs, she covers different layers of the region’s history – with a Cherokee team of stickball, she sends us back to pre-colonial times; with the portrait of a coal miner, she evokes a time when the industry was still flourishing; with the picture of a young girl in Christian outfits, she pays respect to a place where religion permeates the landscape; and with photographs of local flowers set up as if extracted from an herbarium, she hints at the future. “The flowers, leaves and spider webs all became part of my obsession with capturing the real and preserving it for time”, Kranitz explains.
The motives of the same spider webs and cracks in the tree leaves echo the singular shape of Appalachia that she meticulously and repetitively draws. “These topographic maps are a meditative process that gives me a chance to really try to understand the mountains in a completely different way”, she says. “These are different ways for me to connect deeper with the land.”
Working within the documentary tradition, Stacy Kranitz makes photographs that acknowledge the limits of photographic representation.
Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Paris focusing on cultural and environmental issues. She is also the editorial director of Dysturb.
This article is part of our feature series Photo Kernel, which aims to give space to the best contemporary practitioners in our community. The word Kernel means the core, centre, or essence of an object, but it also refers to image processing.