I ‘stumbled’ into an ‘unboxing video’ on youtube once when looking for some info on some photo doohickey or other that I wanted to buy, and was astonished. A video review just about opening a box! Well I never. Was this for real? What was even more surprising than it actually being for real, was that there were so many similar ‘unboxing’ videos.
Each one saying nothing very much about what the item IN the box might do to enlighten me or enhance my life, just earnest comments about the rigidity of the cardboard, the alluring sheen of its plastic shrink wrap, and the breadth and legibility of the instruction manual. In a world that seems preoccupied with ‘surface’ these ‘reviews’ were like skipping stones on a pond, destined quickly to sink. I said I will never ever…………
….but today I unboxed Appalachia.
Well to be more precise, ‘Testify’, a book by photographer Roger May. A slim and unassuming pair of elegantly bound volumes of photographs of Roger’s ‘home’. The process of unwrapping was a considered one, observing the carefully handwritten THANK YOU! on the tape. And again inside, another little bit of writing, just for me. When you open something that’s been closed with care, you know, and it matters.
And then the images, of course…..well first perhaps a little background to Roger – you see when I say these images are about Roger’s ‘home’ you might gain the impression that this is a book of photos about a place the author knows well. But it quickly becomes obvious he doesn’t.
His ‘return’ to this land of his birth has been an ongoing process, one of discovery and revelation. His use of the word ‘testify’ is not just a catchy title loaded with the heady aroma of religion, and the tight strictures of the law, but a nod towards the broader inference of sharing a personal truth with others. As Roger reveals:
Like Appalachia (and I imagine many other places too) my own country has long been represented, and misrepresented as variously a ‘highland wilderness’ or ‘historic landscape of castles draped with mist and ghosts’ or ‘decaying urban wasteland in the wake of long-gone industry’ and all festooned with tartan, small white dogs and whisky, never mind the uncounted legions of orange cows peering over every fence.
And it took someone who was both ‘insider and outsider’ – Gus Wylie – to reveal for me what was special about this place of my birth. He revealed that it WAS indeed comprised of all those stereotypes, but it was so much more besides. Wylie with his ‘open eye’ taught me to be suspicious of those who claim some absolute insight because they “know it well, from the inside” but who, with their blinkered vision, see only what they know, and which is all too often a very narrow view.
And as with Wylie, so too with May. There are no great claims of insight offered here, no absolute truths revealed, pinned like butterflies to a board, glorious in their iridescent sheen but telling us precious little about how beautifully they flew. Rather there are questions posed, little glimpses of place, gaps between moments that had other meanings for other people in some other time, but which still today reveal their imprint on the landscape. ‘All that there was then, has created that which we surround ourselves with now…’ they seem to say.
There is a great sense of ‘discovery’ evident here, of an ‘image maker’ teasing out from the warp and woof of belonging, those little threads that often lead to unexpected places, to reveal a great deal more about the pattern of life in this landscape.
And through it all are the people, their marks upon this landscape, and of course this landscape’s mark upon them too. Big coal, with all it’s problems and its devastating effect upon both the physical landscape, and the health of the miners, is both a blessing and a curse. It wrought its bittersweet charms on my mother’s family – her dad was a Scottish coal miner, my mum one of 15 children. My grandfather died of lung disease, as did several of his sons who had followed him into ‘the pit’. But ‘the pit’ paid their wages, enabled 15 children to be fed, clothed and educated. Coal united communities, and it split families. But it helped to create a nation.
And ‘Testify’ does not shy away from this ‘black history’. The landscape will never allow that, the mark of coal is everywhere. One of the more moving images (and there are many) is an historical one, simply titled ‘Williamson, West Virgina, 2008’ which appears in the index as close-up of a framed image on a wall, but cropped tighter in the presentation page. It shows a group of miners, black, white, all races, square-jawed Scandinavians and perhaps a few of my softer-featured Scottish emigrant cousins, but all united in the dirt of mining, proud and smiling. As my mum would observe on the dangers inherent in mining, ‘mines don’t care who dies’, what she meant was that you never knew when your moment would come, you worked with that ever-present risk and just relied on the men you worked with, and trusted in your God.
And these themes of ‘fellowship’, and ‘trust’ and ‘religion’ ripple through ‘Testify’ like an electrical current. Each image charged with significance. I think you can guess by now I found this a wonderfully moving ‘book’. And I use the word ‘book’ carefully because this is more than ‘just a book’ it’s a testament to one individual’s growing relationship with his home, and it is simply a beautiful piece of work.
And then…..well…then there are the unexpected little bits of magic, which when you stumble onto them, make you gasp. As I did last night. The sun was setting across the loch and spilling into the house, and a shaft of weak light bouncing from somewhere illuminated one of the open books I had just laid down, to reveal the imprint of the hand-stitching that has been lovingly used to bind the pages.
But the magic, the magic is in the marks it has left, its imprint in the page. All these threads teased out by May in his visual exploration of his homeland and tying him inexorably to the land, are given form in the binding of his book, leaving their mark, as he will also with his ‘testament’. No doubt leaving a lasting impression on the cultural landscape of his home, one that signified a caring hand, and work that was lovingly given.