Bruce Jackson (b. 1936), House in Poorbottom, 1969; photograph; Courtesy of the artist

Bruce Jackson (b. 1936), House in Poorbottom, 1969; photograph; Courtesy of the artist

Bruce Jackson Being There, Poorbottom

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Throughout the run of Being There: Bruce Jackson Photographs 1962-2010, the artist is sharing some of the stories behind his photographs.Being There is on view until June 16, 2013. The catalog accompanying the exhibition is available at The Museum Store at the Burchfield Penney.


In early fall 1969, a friend called from Lexington, Kentucky. He wondered if I could come down and do an article for a national magazine about how politicians and mine owners in the eastern part of the state were scooping up money meant for the Poverty Program and maumauing poverty workers. Not only had there been shots fired through the windows of poverty workers' homes and sticks of dynamite set off on their porches, but some had even been arrested for sedition. Carl Braden, a journalist in Louisville, and his wife Anne, were also arrested for sedition by the Pike County D.A. because they tried to post bail for one of the poverty workers.

I called Willie Morris, who was then editor of Harper's, and pitched the story. Willie said it seemed like a good idea, he'd give me as much space as the story needed, and he'd send a $1000 advance to cover the trip. So I took a plane to Lexington. My friend and I first drove to Berea, where we met with some members of a group called the Appalachian Volunteers. They'd been getting most the legal heat in Pike county. Then we drove to Pikeville on the eastern edge of the state. (Willie left Harper's shortly after I turned my story in; the new editors cut in it half; I withdrew it; Willie told me to keep the $1000. The story eventually appeared in Society magazine an an expanded version is in my book Disorderly Conduct, 1992). People told me to be careful what I photographed: not long before a Canadian filmmaker visiting the next county had been shot dead because he took a photo of someone's house. It was ruled justifiable homicide. Someone told me that because I had a beard the local D.A. would be sure I was a communist. "What if I said I was playing Henry the Eighth in a play?" "Then Ratliff would be sure Henry the Eighth was a communist too."

One day, Edith Easterling, a lifelong resident of a section of Pikeville called Marrowbone Creek who was then working for the Appalachian Volunteers as director of the Marrowbone Folk School, told me she wanted me to come with her to visit a family in a section of the county called Poorbottom. We drove out there in her pickup. On the way, Edith told me that someone had shot out her front windows a few nights before. "They weren't trying to hurt anybody," she said, "they were just sending a message." If they'd wanted to hurt her, she said, they'd have tossed dynamite through the windows.

I had no words for the house in Poorbottom. I'd seen poverty, but I'd never seen poverty like that. "This is what it's all about," Edith said. We went inside. "Bring your camera," Edith said. "No," I said, "maybe later." We talked with the woman who lived there and some of her children. At one point Edith said, "You should go out to the truck and get your camera." I ignored her. It was too painful to photograph. I've never been like a news photographer who can photograph anything; I need permission or license before I get close to the truly awful. (I remember the scene at the beginning of Haskell Wexler's film Medium Cool, where the newsman and his cameraman come upon an accident on an otherwise empty road. They get out of their car, film the dead and the injured, then call 911.)

Edith said it again and I again ignored her. Then the mother said, "That's right, sonny. You go out to the truck and get your camera and take pictures so you can show people where you live how us people down here has to live." That's approximate. It was 44 years ago.

So I did it. I took several photos of the woman and her children in the house. One of them is in the exhibit. Another is of the house itself. One, not in the show, appears below. When it came up in the developing tray back in Buffalo, I cried.

I learned something really important on that trip: that the most important function people who do the sort of work I do can perform is what that woman in that cabin told me to do: show folks back here what things out there are like. Sometimes the things out there are beautiful; sometimes they're not.

-Bruce Jackson