Book Review: Portraits and Dreams: Photographs and Stories by Children of the Appalachians by Wendy Ewald
When Wendy Ewald arrived in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains in 1975, she began a project that aimed to reveal the intimate dreams and fears of local schoolchildren. Tasked with finding authentic ways of representing the lives of these children, she gave each of them a camera and interviewed them about their childhood in the mountains. In Portraits and Dreams, life’s mysterious truths – love, loss, violence, death, new life – are given voice through the students’ visual exploration and discovery. We learn the eloquence and originality with which children see the world and we see a honest new way of engaging children in the possibilities of the photographic medium. Through these revealing transcripts and photographs, we discover the families as seen through the eyes of their children – where domestic, rural life is understood with startling openness and depth.
Ewald describes in the book how she arrived in Lecher County, Kentucky at the age of 25, and how she worked with students over the coming years to teach, collaborate and encourage them to tell their stores. Portraits and Dreams is the culmination of the work of some of those students, and their words accompany the images they made with a range of basic film cameras. Some students worked with Instamatics, Polarioids and even some twin-lens reflex cameras. Ewald also taught darkroom skills so they could print their images. The resulting poignant and accessible images and text tell the story of their lives. Some children emulate their heroes, show off their prized possessions, directly document the way they live in their surroundings, or in the case of the guided assignments Ewald would give – their hopes, dreams and fears.
I draw many connections to my own introduction and education in photography in Ewald’s book. The quasi-documentary, semi-performative nature of the work created in Portraits and Dreams hits that sweet spot and liminal nature of visual storytelling. Such a complicated process looks amazingly simple. We gain nimble insight into the lives of these children via their photos – often uncomplicated by critical afterthought on intent with critique on camera placement, historic context, etc. As Denise Dixon simply explains for her self-portraits, ‘Reaching for the Red Star Sky’ where she is dancing in a swimsuit and sandals in the yard right beside her family’s house: I stood there because I could hear the music better.
Ben Lifson writes about this immediacy and meaningfulness of the photos made by students in the introduction to the book. Speaking about the photos produced by Ewald’s collaborations with the children from the hollers of Letcher County, Kentucky, Lifson writes, “Their world is intimate and still. The places they describe are self-contained; no fragments of details along the edges of the pictures imply connection to a larger world just outside the frame.” Lifson also highlights the often overlooked connection to Ewald and her mentorship approach: “The driving conscience of this work is Wendy Ewald’s. She believed that if left to follow their hearts and pleasures, the children would show us both what they cherished and what their community holds dear.” Far too often images and the work from this time period and region of the country has been viewed by outsiders as quaint and naive, and unfairly derogative. A recent concentration by contemporary image makers, historians and storytellers has made strives to right these wrongs and celebrate the Appalachian region for its rich diversity and culture.
Ewald’s book was first published in 1985 and has been hailed as “An American masterpiece”. The revised and expanded 2020 edition offers access to a different and broadened view of the rural south over the span of 35 years, and includes contemporary pictures and stories by eight of the students from the original publication. Ewald is an inspiration for many photographers and photo educators in the decades that followed the original book, and this chance to enjoy the seminal book shouldn’t be missed.
Portraits and Dreams (2020)
OTA bound paperback
17.5 x 25.5 cm, 160 pages
Published by MACK – http://www.mackbooks.co.uk
Wendy Ewald is a photographer, educator and artist who has worked with children throughout her career with the mission of “helping children to see” and using the camera as a tool for expression. To learn more about Wendy Ewald, visit her website: https://wendyewald.com
Also: more information about this book and the history of the project is available at Appalshop: whose mission is to enlist the power of education, media, theater, music, and other arts to: document, disseminate, and revitalize the lasting traditions and contemporary creativity of Appalachia; tell stories the commercial cultural industries don’t tell, challenging stereotypes with Appalachian voices and visions; support communities’ efforts to achieve justice and equity and solve their own problems in their own ways; celebrate cultural diversity as a positive social value; and participate in regional, national, and global dialogue toward these ends.