Author Interview: Builder Levy

Intern Jack asks the hard-hitting questions we all want to know

Appalachia USA is an honest, unrelenting and thoroughly humanist look at the people of the Appalachian coal mining communities in southwestern Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. Through his photographic lens and insightful commentary, Builder Levy illuminates the human stories and moments beneath the thin, black layer of coal dust and paints a deeply moving picture of the personal and environmental impacts of the mining industry’s ceaseless search for veins of black gold. In his photographs we see mothers struggling to protect their children, men and women fighting for their rights as workers, but above all we see the same warmth in their eyes that unites us all.

Builder Levy is a graduate of Brooklyn College of City University of New York as well as New York University. He has worked as a New York City teacher of at-risk adolescents for thirty-five years. He works to highlight the humanity of Appalachian coal miners in much the same manner that Walker Evans did for disadvantaged farmers in the dust bowl. His photographs are in more than 80 collections around the world.

Having studied Marxist critical theory at university, I took a deep interest in Levy’s portrayals of union culture and his focus on the working person, as well as the negative impacts of the energy industry’s operation in Appalachian America. His photographs are simultaneously sobering and heartwarming, and create a unique and endearing sense of familiarity between reader and subject. I asked him questions in order to learn more about his past experiences as a photographer, teacher and a union member.

As someone who grew up in Brooklyn and has lived in New York City for most of your life, how did you find yourself interested in photographing rural Appalachian mining towns?

Toward the end of the sixties, I felt I needed to see and experience more of America outside of NYC. I had spent most of the sixties photographing in the streets of Brooklyn and New York City. I had also photographed at the March on Washington where Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. I had photographed at mass marches and demonstrations in New York City and a few more in DC for civil rights and peace. In addition, in April 1968, I flew to Memphis, Tennessee to photograph the “Martin Luther King Memorial March for Union Justice and to End Racism,” and then to Atlanta, Georgia to photograph the Martin Luther King Funeral. That summer I began my “Appalachia USA” project, although I didn’t come up with that title until 2008.

I had been raised in a family that encouraged art, and believed the world needed to be changed. As a little kid I listened to my parents’ records of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie singing “Which Side Are You On,” a song about coal miners’ struggles, written by the wife of a striking miner in Harlan County, Kentucky, and many other songs including: “John Henry” and “Oh Freedom”. In the small multiracial progressive children’s summer camp I attended in Wilmington, Vermont, we sang those same songs. Today they still resonate with me.

Why did you select Appalachia for this project?

Appalachian miners [have] struggled against some of the most powerful industrial and corporate forces on earth to make life better for themselves, their families, and workers throughout the nation. (In the 1930s and ‘40s the United Mine Workers helped organize the United Steel Workers and the United Autoworkers.) During slavery, the Underground Railroad had many way stations manned by mountaineer settlers in Appalachia, and during the civil war, 250,000 southern Appalachian mountain boys volunteered for the Union army in the war against the Confederate slaveocracy. The Appalachians, the oldest and most biodiverse mountain range in North America, was originally the hunting grounds of the Cherokee and other indigenous people. Appalachian miners were not a monolithic ethnic group, but a polyglot that included African Americans, eastern Europeans, Western Europeans, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Italian, Mexican, Native Americans and others. This project allowed me to make photographs as art while immersing myself into the life of a very significant, yet often mischaracterized and misunderstood rural region of America, in the hope of finding and revealing deeper American reality and truths.

Would you say your teaching career has affected your photographic style or your outlook on life? If so, how?

My students were mostly adolescents of color from poor, working-class families. Some had been in gangs. Some came from foster homes. Some came from jails and/or prison. I talked with them. I listened to them. I got them to write about and photograph their own lives. They shared their lives with me. They enriched my life and my understanding of life. I learned that if you show people you are genuinely interested in them, their lives, their humanity, and culture, and are willing to listen and interact with them, they will often open up to share something of their own lives. I could be given so much from my students and my photographic subjects. I learned how to allow people—students/subjects to give [some] of themselves to me so that in return, I could give something back to them and the world, through my teaching and my photographs. I taught that the students could find their subject matter and vision in their own lives and within their families, their communities, heritage, culture, and struggles. I worked alongside my students, encouraging examples of strength, dignity, love, and camaraderie. I taught by my own example, but also with examples of the great photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eugene Atget, Lewis Hine, Paul Strand, Dorothea Lange, Roy de Carava, W. Eugene Smith, Robert Frank and Peter Magubane. I approached teaching as a way to share and raise consciousness, and while interacting with my students and their lives, enriching and raising my own consciousness as well. By working with my students and getting them to create writing and photography about their own lives, they inspired and enriched my life — [this is] reflected in my own photographs as well.

You mentioned in the Adore Noir interview that several of the places you photographed have since been destroyed by mountaintop removal, flooding, highway construction, or other causes. ( The subject “Coal Camp,” for instance, was gone when you returned in the new millennium), what is it like to return to a location you previously photographed only to find it missing?  

The feeling is of a void, a sadness, an emptiness!   A way of life and a community is disappearing. The dying mines need to be replaced with new industry and living wage jobs. Such could be in education, the health/medical field, environmental reclamation, sustainable energy fields—wind power, solar power, music and visual arts and cultural centers, etc.

When I revisited Raleigh and Boone Counties, West Virginia, in the new millennium, I considered revisiting Stotesbury, where I had made my photograph “Oglesby Bedroom” in Luther Oglesby’s home, in 1982. But I was told there were only a few homes and families left out of the hundreds that I had seen in 1982. I had lost touch with the family. In May I heard from the Oglesbys. The daughter in the photograph, her daughter emailed me with info about the family, and we talked and emailed and caught up. And in June I spoke with Dora Oglesby (the one in the photo). Now there are only three houses left in the whole coal camp.

It is a feeling of loss. A void.

What is the state of mining unions in Appalachia today?  Is their power on the rise, or are they seeing stagnation?

Beginning in the 1980s and accelerating in the 1990s, many of the large coal companies aggressively tried to break the union contract and run non-union mines. One result was less down time in the mine to remedy safety issues. Safety was sacrificed for increased production and profits. There was a rise in mine accidents and fatalities. The worst was at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, Raleigh County, West Virginia, where 29 miners died from a methane explosion in 2010. Mines have been closing all over Appalachia and employment is steadily declining. A number of large mining companies have filed for bankruptcy. Membership in the UMWA has been declining as well. The union is weaker in terms of numbers and influence today.

Could you tell us a little about your experience with the teachers’ unions during your time as a teacher in New York?

It is a long story, but the short answer is, I am a union man! I come from a union family. I like to say, “Coal miners and teachers are among America’s unsung heroes.” The union fought for and won smaller class size, no asbestos in the schools, pensions, a decent salary, paid holidays, and healthcare.

Why do you take pictures?

It gives me a heightened sense [of] being alive. It is my way of being intensely connected to the world. It allows me to explore/discover/experience/interact/teach/reveal/be involved in the real world and simultaneously be deeply immersed in the aesthetic process, to create something new—a photographic print as a physical art object that is imbued with a new consciousness in and of the world. I want my photographs to take on a life of their own. To change the world.

The humanity of your subjects is obviously an incredibly important part of your work.  Do you find your presence as an outsider in their community prevents them from opening up and being themselves, or is it the opposite?

I work till I am not looked at as an outsider—or at least considered an ally or friend. Sometimes I get introduced by someone who is already known. I always try to start off with some advanced contacts. I talk to people. I answer questions and explain what I am trying to do. I hang around. I return. I talk. I show people what I am doing. I give out samples of my work in the form of postcards, announcement cards etc. as small gifts. If I feel like an outsider, and if I am viewed as an outsider, I usually won’t get good photographs. I try to break down barriers. I introduce myself and tell them what I am trying to do: “I am a teacher from New York City trying to make photographs about the real life of the Appalachian coal miner.”

For several days I was hanging around talking to and photographing miners while they waited for their shift to begin. I talked. I listened. I answered their questions seriously and honestly. They joked, good-naturedly—a foreman asked,” You’re not one of those Nader raiders, are you?” And, while I am setting up a large view camera on my tripod, and focusing the old fashioned looking camera under the black cloth, an old timer tells me, “A miner’s life is a dog’s life—buddy, put that in your book!”