Review: Portraits and Dreams, Wendy Ewald

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Published by Appalshop, Portraits and Dreams emerged from a project conducted with the help of the National Endowment for the Arts, the Polaroid Foundation, the Kentucky Arts Commission, and the Public Welfare Foundation. This publication is the culmination of a longer, more encompassing project facilitated by Wendy Ewald who arrived in 1975 to Letcher County, Kentucky and found herself being called to teach photography to students in the area. Through this work as an art educator, Ewald exchanged skills, stories, and lessons that could be carried through the young photographers’ lives. One can imagine what it’s like to have big dreams, a relatively low budget, and to be in a community with very little space to offer such a small photography program. Ewald even describes “developing negatives in changing bags in the boiler room,” yet they made it work (12).

Ewald movingly explains that her students “hadn’t seen anything like the photographs they were going to take,” due to the fact that at the time, there were no published books of children’s photography (16). Even though resources were somewhat limited, the images created by Ewald’s students are provocative and raw. Through various approaches by the children, some taking on the role of director while others attempted to artfully document their daily lives, the images are “rendered through their [own] voices, their vision given expression through the magic of camera film.” In hopes of upholding this vision, Ewald carefully curates the work and text to “let the truth of their lives stand on its own” (9).

Through suggestive text, like that in the foreword written by Robert Coles, the reader is immediately placed in the viewpoint of an outsider: “Wendy Ewald, who has helped these younger teachers, these Appalachian boys and girls, educate us strangers to their land and life.” (10) This assumption promptly places the book at a distance from the viewer as well as further perpetuates the idea that Appalachia is a far-away land with a way of life unlike any other. Though the writers use somewhat unsavory terms to describe the folks included in the project, likely a product of the times, it is clear that there is high regard and appreciation of their effort and talents throughout the community. In addition to being shown in local schools, banks, and libraries, the work was eventually shown at exhibitions in New York City and Chicago (17).

The collection of photographs offers individual vignettes into several children’s lives and the stories behind the making of the images are told in both the words of the young artists and in those of Ewald as she experienced the image making through her students. The book is broken into four visual thematic components (self-portrait, animals, family, and dreams), prefaced and concluded with pieces of writing from Wendy Ewald, Robert Coles, and Ben Lifson. The majority of the book is comprised of photographs made by the children Ewald taught during the several years she spent in Kentucky, but also includes Ewald’s documentation of those years as well as introspective writing from the students whose work is showcased.

The photographs in the book are separated into four visual themes, the first being that of self-portraits. This section of the book provides a tender, yet powerful, look into the lives of the young photographers at home. From Russell Akeman’s self-portraits made lying on the back of the family horse, to Freddy Childers’ “Self-portrait with the picture of my biggest brother, Everett, who killed himself when he came back from Vietnam,” to Denise Dixon’s triptych “Self-portrait reaching for the Red Star sky,” the reader is offered a peek into the lived experience of these children through a portrayal that is entirely conducted by themselves (24-36). While these images are thoughtfully staged and enacted, they represent an explicitly real moment in time that is not often given attention simply due to the fact that the creator is young. Through these images, the artists transcend stereotypes by presenting intimate everyday moments through the lens of someone who is actually a part of them. By including excerpts from the students’ artist statements, the reader is able to hear the voice behind the images which gives the young artists a certain power and weight that is explicit in its intention.

“The mountains-- I feel they have secrets like nobody has ever heard of. Some people say if they could talk they would speak wisdom. I feel that way, too. I guess I’ve been in the mountains so much, it just makes me feel like myself” (23).

Moving into the theme of animals included in the book, it is easily understood that the relationships between community members and the animals on the farm, and in the forests, are deeply ingrained in their ways of life and learning. Be it through a chicken or hog killing or a walk through the woods at night, animals provide important teaching moments and become the basis for connection to many other aspects of life (53).

The images in the third section of the photographic collection, family portraits, offer a slightly more complex view into these young photographers’ lives. While there are typical portraits of immediate family members, there are also telling images made during dinnertime, church services, and funerals. Among these are quite a few pictures of pictures, highlighting the photographer’s desire to include those who may be physically absent but are still a part of their lives in some capacity. Along the same line, some artists chose to include postmortem images or photographs made in cemeteries. For example, Maywood Campbell photographs her “Mamaw and Papaw’s graves at Christmas time,” even though one of these grandparents has not passed yet (90).

While these images are a beautiful attempt to document their lives as they experience them, Ewald offers the young photographers an opportunity to capture their dreams, showcased in the fourth and final section of the collection. Through images depicting wedding ceremonies, somersaults, monsters, space, and the feeling of flying, the reader is carried through the mind of a young person in theatrical performances of their own imaginings. In an attempt to recreate a nightmare she experienced, Denise Dixon was compelled to make a series of photographs that tell this story in greater detail. She begins her statement, “I always think about what I’m going to do before I take the picture” (114). Dixon writes of the creation of the images, “If I didn’t know how I took them, I’d be scared,” and goes on to explain, “I told him [her brother] to bow down like he was sad. I took the picture at the foot of the grave that had just been filled.” This kind of agency exhibited in the authorship of these images is continuously exemplified throughout the collection and, in turn, brings the viewer closer to the reality that these young photographers strive to show. As Lifson points out, “Although they were children, they seldom photographed from below; they stood level with their subjects,” (117) which, again, reinforces the young photographers’ agency as an individual who is just as deserving of respect and notability. In conclusion, this book houses a powerful collection of images that would be inspiring to any artist or educator, regardless of age.

Ewald, W. (1985). Portraits and Dreams: Photographs and Stories by Children of the Appalachians. New York: Writers and Readers Pub.