Secret Histories | Builder Levy: Appalachia USA

Builder Levy. The Church Family, Thacker Mines, Mingo County, West Virginia, 1970. Gold-toned gelatin silver print.

Appalachia that stretches across the eastern United States, running from New York down to northern Mississippi. The former hunting grounds of the Cherokee and other indigenous groups, Appalachia became home to colonists seeking to escape oppressive British rule. Later, it was marked by the routes and hideouts of slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad. Growing into a center of abolitionism, more than a quarter million southern mountaineers joined the Union army during the Civil War.

But it was after the war that things began to change, as Appalachia was recognized as a distinctive cultural region in the late nineteenth century. Large-scale logging and coal mining firms brought industry to the region, taking advantage of the abundant natural resources of the land. Miners were recruited from southern prison conscript labor, local subsistence farms, African American communities in the south, and even towns and villages throughout Europe.

Builder Levy. Coal Camp, near Grundy, Buchanan County, Virginia, 1970.

Builder Levy. Coal Camp, near Grundy, Buchanan County, Virginia, 1970. Gold-toned gelatin silver print.

Despite the profits made by the mining and logging companies, the people of Appalachia have long struggled with poverty, as health care and educational facilities failed to meet the communities’ needs. At the same time, the region became a source of enduring myths and distortions about its inhabitants. As the media began focusing on sensationalized stories like moonshining and clan feuding, Appalachia became seen as America’s white ghetto, home to an uneducated and violent underclass.

During the 1960s and ‘70s, sociological studies were conducted in an effort to re-examine and dispel those stereotypes. In 1968, Photographer Builder Levy, a humanist in the tradition of Lewis Hine, Paul Strand, and Walker Evans, traveled to Appalachia for the first time to document the lives of coal workers. For the next four decades, he continued his work, producing two books including Images of Appalachia Coalfields (1989) and Appalachia USA: Photographs, 1968-2009 (2014).

Builder Levy. Waiting and Whittling, Eastern Coal Company, Stone, Pike County, Kentucky, 1970. Gold-toned gelatin silver print.

Builder Levy. Waiting and Whittling, Eastern Coal Company, Stone, Pike County, Kentucky, 1970. Gold-toned gelatin silver print.

As Levy reveals, “When my first book was published, I thought the project finished. But by then, big changes were already occurring in the central Appalachian landscape. In addition to an increasing proliferation of enormous toxic liquid coal waste reservoirs, mountaintop removal surface mining—the most efficient yet most destructive form of coal extraction—was becoming the dominant process, destroying communities that had existed for generations and threatening to erase a region’s way of life.”

A selection of these photographs is on view in Builder Levy: Appalachia USA, at the Florida State University Museum of Fine Arts, Tallahassee, now through March 27, 2016, providing an extraordinary look at the people and the land. Levy takes us to into the coal camps to meet the people and see the world through their eyes, showing us the extraordinary circumstances in which the people live and work today. If the people are tough, it is because they have to be. As one older man told Levy, “A miner’s life is a dog’s life! Buddy put that in your book!”

Builder Levy. Sisters, Osage, Scotts Run, Monongalia, West Virginia, 1970. Gold-toned gelatin silver print.

Builder Levy. Sisters, Osage, Scotts Run, Monongalia, West Virginia, 1970. Gold-toned gelatin silver print.


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.