Ken Light

Coal Hollow: Photographs and Oral Histories.
Photographs by Ken Light and oral histories by Melanie Light, with forewords by Orville Schell and Robert B. Reich.
University Of California Press, Berkeley, 2006. 152 pp., black-and-white illustrations throughout, 11x11″.

You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?

Another day older and deeper in debt

St. Peter don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go

I owe my soul to the company store.

As I read the oral history of Neale Clark, a local news-paper reporter of Oak Hill, West Virginia, recounting the mining days of the early 1900s I remembered this song chorus. These coal hollows are places rich in folklore and folk songs. Mother Jones had a presence here. This song stayed with me through all of Ken Light’s piercing black-and-white photographs of coal communities today trying to hold on and barely surviving. This year was a sad year for the families of the mining industry and the media attention of the Sago mine accident makes the faces in these images seem more familiar. In Coal Hollow, the Lights convey the day-to-day reality and negative impact of the coal mining industry. In addition to the photographs, the book includes oral histories conducted by Melanie Light that provide insight into the continuing saga of poverty and humanity in Appalachia. The diversity of those interviewed is commendable, however they are too loosely affiliated with the photographs to give anything more than a general voice behind the composite group represented. There are pockets of poverty in the United States that rival some countries classified as undeveloped, and many of these pockets are found in the mountain valleys of West Virginia. Coal Hollow brings to light the social situation in these coal mining communities. – Larissa Leclair

Originally published in the Photo-eye Booklist, Summer 2006.