Dreamlike photos of Appalachia in the 1970s

Ruby Cornett's “I asked my sister to take a picture of me on Easter morning,'" from “Portraits and Dreams” by Wendy Ewald. (Courtesy of the artist and Mack)

For the past 20 years, I have immersed myself in the history of photography. I know quite a bit about what has been done. But I’m not so naive as to believe that I know it all. That’s the one thing that has kept me engaged and passionate about photography — the understanding that there is always some body of work somewhere around the corner that will make things seem new to me again.

This is precisely what happened when I learned of an updated version of a book I didn’t know existed — Wendy Ewald’s “Portraits and Dreams: Photographs and Stories by Children of the Appalachians.” It’s just been republished by Mack publishing house, and it’s fascinating.

Ewald moved to Kentucky in February 1976. Just 25 years old, she was keen on getting to know her new home and neighbors. She wanted to capture her new surroundings, to create a document that “had the soul and rhythm of the place.” But she felt that her own camera was getting in the way of doing that.

During college, Ewald had taught photography to First Nations children, and her new home seemed like the perfect opportunity to continue that. So, she contacted the principal of the local school and eventually began teaching the children of Letcher County how to take pictures. For the next few years, it is what she did. The results, compiled into “Portraits and Dreams,” are extraordinary.

Far from being merely descriptive of the place where they live, the photographs give us an intimate look inside the children’s minds. This was accomplished partly because Ewald asked the children to photograph their dreams. So, many of the photos in the book depict the children’s rich inner lives.

The exercises Ewald had the children do with their cameras resulted in photos depicting both the whimsical and the sinister. Each of these can be seen in photos such as Denise Dixon’s “Self-portrait reaching for the Red Star sky,” and Allen Shepherd’s “I dreamt I killed my best friend, Ricky Dixon.”

In a lovely introduction to the book, Ben Lifson writes about the photos produced by Ewald’s collaborations with the children from the hollers of Letcher County. Of the photos, Lifson says, “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 attributes all of this to the guidance of Ewald: “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.”

First published in 1985, Ewald’s original book is very rare, but this new version, with photos and stories by eight of the students from the original publication, brings new life to what is already considered to be a masterpiece.

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