When photographer Builder Levy was 5 or 6 years old, he discovered his parents’ record collection in their Bath Beach, Brooklyn, home. As he listened to The Almanac Singers, Woody Guthrie, Florence Reese and Pete Seeger, the song “Which Side Are You On?” immediately grabbed his attention. He recalls asking his parents about it and listening to them describe the often-militant struggles of coal miners for decent pay and safer working conditions. The song would prove to be a soundtrack for much of Levy’s later work.
The murder of Emmett Till (1941-1955) was another touchstone that propelled Levy toward the work he now does. Levy was 13 years old, and Till’s death – at age 14 – impacted him enormously, motivating him to take a stand against racism. “I remember one of the first things I did was getting students at my high school to sign petitions in support of school integration,” he said. “I also went to a small March on Washington in 1957, shortly after the Brown v. Board of Education decision.”
Then, in 1965, a year after he graduated from Brooklyn College, a series of newspaper articles exposed hunger and poverty in Hazard County, Kentucky, putting Appalachia back on Levy’s radar. His made his first trip there in 1968 and began what would become a 45-year project of documenting not only penury but the resilience and pride of the people living in the 205,000-square-mile region. The result is a 2014 book called Appalachia USA, a 69-photo retrospective that includes portraits of miners and their families as well as landscapes depicting the destruction caused by mountaintop removal. Levy further documents efforts to ameliorate economic and ecological problems and showcases the cultural institutions that work to support the 25 million people who reside in the 13-state territory.
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Elissa Schappel, in a Vanity Fair review, hails the book for “doing for today’s coal miners what Walker Evans did for sharecroppers and tenant farmers in the Dust Bowl.”
Levy is thrilled by the accolades Appalachia USA has received. And while he currently has no plans to return to Appalachia, his photography career is far from over. Trips to Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, India, Mongolia and Tanzania have given him ample fodder for his work as a social documentarian, work that he says was inspired by photographers such as Ansel Adams, Eugene Atget, Roy DeCarava, Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange, Danny Lyons and Paul Strand.
Not surprisingly, Levy’s work has been widely exhibited and is part of countless private and institutional collections, among them Berea College, the Highlander Research and Education Center, the National Gallery of Canada, the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida.
On a recent Sunday morning, I interviewed Levy in his large, art-filled loft in Manhattan’s Flatiron District – a unit he and his wife have lived in for almost 40 years. During the course of a rambling, several-hour conversation, Levy spoke not only about photography, but also about politics and teaching, his primary occupation for 35 years.
Eleanor Bader for Truthout: Let’s start by talking about how you first got interested in photography.
Builder Levy: When I was 8, my dad gave me my first box camera. He was an amateur photographer and kept the chemicals for developing film in a darkroom in our basement. After I shot my first roll of film, he helped me develop a contact sheet for it. I did this with him a few times but lost interest pretty quickly. Then, in 1958, Robert Frank published a book called The Americans. I was not yet a photography student, but I was aware of Frank’s work and loved it. He’d gone out and photographed life in the streets, in bars, in the western US and in Coney Island. He took photos of regular people, and his work was totally different from anything I’d seen before. It was not a travelogue. It wasn’t happy-go-lucky, but it made me want to go out and see America, find out what existed outside the City.
When I first started college in 1960, I wanted to be a painter. But a photography course with Walter Rosenblum [1919-2006] changed my focus. Rosenblum had been part of the Photo League that formed in 1936 to document strikes and class struggles. It disbanded in the 1950s after it was put on Joseph McCarthy’s Subversive Activities list. Rosenblum later started the Photography Forum, where documentary photographers would get together and discuss their work. Thanks to Rosenblum and the Forum I got involved in creating socially conscious art.
What was the key lesson Rosenblum and the Forum taught you about social documentary?
If you want people to look at a photo, it has to be beautiful. Social documentary has to go beyond propaganda. It has to speak to people’s lives and struggles. I never know when I’m going to make good photos. I’ve learned that just because something is good socially, it doesn’t mean that it will make a good photograph.
As an outsider, how were you able to go into Appalachia and start taking pictures?
I never go anywhere without first making contact with local people. Sometimes, the organizations I reach out to will give me the names of people to call or will connect me with an anti-poverty agency.
My first trip south, in the summer of 1968, started in Boone, North Carolina, where an anti-poverty group had made arrangements for me to stay with a local family. There were 10 kids, and the father had worked in the timber industry. They were poor, had no car, and the deal was that I would drive them around to appointments and to visit friends and relatives. In exchange, they’d let me take photos of the family and other people I met. I stayed with them for a week or 10 days. Then, on the way back, I stopped off to see someone I knew who was a VISTA Volunteer [Note: Volunteers in Service to America, VISTA, was the precursor of AmeriCorps] in southern West Virginia. He introduced me to people who took me around. I ended up in Kermit, West Virginia, in Mongo County. I took some pictures in a tavern and then caught up with a bunch of kids; I think they were paperboys, on their bikes. There was a tarpaper shack and a concrete building behind them. I got some great photos of them that were later exhibited in the Kermit library.
You mentioned being inspired as a child by songs that honored job actions and strikes against mine owners. Was there anything else that about Appalachia that drew you to it?
As a kid I’d heard about Harry Sims [1911-1932], a left-wing union organizer who’d gone to Harlan County, Kentucky, to help miners in the 1930s and who had been shot to death by a sheriff’s deputy who also worked as a mine security guard. I’d heard about company towns and how they restricted what workers could do. I also knew that much of the region had opposed slavery and had sided with the Union during the Civil War. My impression was that there were many freedom-loving people throughout the area.
For the most part, the diverse people you photograph are poor, but your pictures always depict their dignity and pride. How are you able to capture this spirit?
If you want to get good shots of people you have to allow them space. You have to be willing to take a lot of time with them. You have to know the craft of photography, of course, but you also have to understand human beings. And then, sometimes you just get lucky. In 1962, when I was still in school, I was in Manhattan and happened to see two little girls dancing and hanging out on their stoop. I was able to take a photo that captured their joy and energy. It’s still one of my favorite pictures.
Appalachia USA includes numerous photos of women and African-American males working as miners. Do they represent a large percentage of today’s mineworkers?
Overall, the mines now employ fewer people because of new technologies and mountaintop removal. Mountaintop removal is done with heavy machinery and utilizes lots of truck drivers to move the coal. Massey and other coal companies essentially broke the unions in the 1990s through lockouts and by refusing to renew contracts. They closed some union mines and then opened new ones that were non-union. Typically, when they lay off workers, it’s the newest hires who are fired. They tend to be women and people of color. Still, a relatively small number of black people have worked in the mines since the 1700s.
How devastating has mountaintop removal been?
Coal companies are able to get coal faster and more cheaply by blasting off the tops of mountains than by traditional methods. The blasted top, the overburden, is full of pulverized rock containing dissolvable, poisonous, heavy metals. This is bulldozed or dumped from a truck over the mountainside, burying streams and becoming valley fill. The exposed coal is then scooped out by giant mechanized shovels. The blasting process can be repeated as many as six to eight times to reach successive coal seams. Along with the clear-cutting that usually precedes it, the mountaintop removal increases the probability and intensity of flooding in the communities and in the hollows and valleys below. During storms, the rainwater gushes down into the valley as if in a funnel, carrying the dissolvable heavy metals. Sometimes the valley fill gives way, causing massive mudslides.
One of the people I met had experienced six major floods over a six-week period. Her rose garden and plants were destroyed, and she finally agreed to let the coal company buy her out. She’d lived there for 30 years.
Groups like Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and other community groups are working on this issue. They understand that we have to develop alternative energy sources, but until we do, we’ll be at least somewhat dependent on coal. Right now, in addition to fighting mountaintop removal, the unions and community groups are fighting to make sure that when coal companies declare bankruptcy, they still pay the workers their pensions. Appalachia USA salutes these people in their efforts. I don’t feel qualified to comment on health issues, but generally speaking there is a lot of black lung and other respiratory disease among the people who live throughout Appalachia.
Let’s end by talking about education. You taught in numerous public junior and senior high schools throughout New York City from 1965 to 2000. How did your students respond to classes in documentary photography?
I spent most of my teaching career working in alternative schools and began before they were called alternative. I worked with at-risk adolescents in some of the roughest neighborhoods in the city. … Some [were] in gangs, some court-referred and some straight out of jail. In one school, we had to set up a portable darkroom in a bathroom. In another, we were given a storage room, which we converted into a darkroom. Photography reached a lot of these kids, gave them a new way of seeing, a different vantage point to assess their homes, lives and communities. We used photos to get the students to write; we walked around, went up onto rooftops to take pictures. It was something positive for them and, for the most part, they loved it.