Stark photographs depict miners' bleak existence


September 30, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Builder Levy's photograph "Coal Camp near Grundy, Virginia" centers on neither a mine nor miners, instead focusing on a small group of houses at the bottom of a hill. But it instantly conveys the toughness of the coal miner's life: The houses are small and right next to the railroad tracks, the trees are bare, it's a dark day and a cloud of smoke lies over the little community. In a word, it's bleak.

And that's the general impression left by "Images of Appalachian Coalfields: Photographs by Builder Levy" at Loyola College. In the honored tradition of documentary photographers, Levy, a New Yorker, spent parts of 14 years in the coal fields of Kentucky, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia, eventually producing a book of 93 photographs from which the 54 in this traveling exhibit are taken.

As might be expected, they convey the grim realities of the lives of the miners and their families: old, poorly kept buildings, cramped quarters in the mines, weathered faces registering more of resignation than of hope or even anger.

But those realities are also conveyed by the starkness and darkness of Levy's black and white photography. To judge by his pictures, thesun seldom shines in these regions, and even when it does Levy's work seems more about shadows than about light. In the end, we know it takes courage to lead the lives these people do, which is all the more admirable given their knowledge that things probably aren't going to get much better.

Aside from their strengths as documentary photography, some of Levy's works are quite beautiful. One, accompanied only by an explanatory caption about "roof stability," defies the everyday language of the text with its tonal beauty, its layering of space, its gentle light that makes the image softly glow.

The exhibit has not been given the strongest possible installation at Loyola. Levy's book is divided into three sections, "The Work," "The Community" and "The Legacy." While the division between the last two is somewhat arbitrary, having the sections makes a stronger overall presentation than the Loyola installation, which mixes them up.

There are compensations, however, one of which is the juxtaposition here of the youthful, energetic face of Brenda Ward (yes, there are women miners) with the middle-aged face of Andrew Kosts, out of which all life seems to have been drained, leaving only a staring, hollow mask behind. One would like to think that when Brenda Ward is Andrew Kosts' age she won't look like that. One would like to think.

The Levy exhibit continues through Oct. 6 at the Loyola College Art Gallery, on the campus at Charles Street and Cold Spring Lane. Call 323-1010, Ext. 2799.

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