First published in 1985 and hailed as a milestone in vernacular photography, Ewald’s book, Portraits and Dreams: Photographs and Stories by Children of the Appalachians, has just been reissued in an expanded version. There remains a singular portrait of the American rural South seen through the eyes of local children, whose living conditions were impoverished but whose inner life was often of an extravagant imagination. In grainy monochrome, they photographed themselves and the world around them: the dilapidated huts they lived in, the adults who raised them, the animals they helped raise and sometimes kill, as well as the hills and hills. hollows in which they wandered from an early age.
Ewald helped them edit their work and organized their images into thematic sections: self-portraits, animals, family portraits and, more dramatically, dreams. She also interviewed them and distilled their unconscious and often grim revealing first-person accounts. “The mountains – I feel like they have secrets no one has ever heard of,” says Allen Shepherd, one of the children. “Some people say if they could speak they would speak wisdom. I feel that too.
Another young boy, Freddy Childers, initially struggled to express himself through the camera but, after a few composition lessons from Ewald, presented him with two revealing family portraits. In one, he smiles with his older brother Homer in their Kingdom Come Creek home, the dirt on their clothes echoing the grime on the walls. In the other, Freddy stands without a smile, cradling a portrait of “my older brother, Everitt, who committed suicide on his return from Vietnam.” A whole world of loss, grief and survival emanates through the years from these grainy images.
Ewald’s most gifted student was Denise Dixon, whose photographs testify to an instinctive understanding of composition coupled with a vivid imagination. In a series of self-portraits, titled Reaching the Sky of the Red Star, she dances ecstatically against a recessed brick wall that cuts the frame in half. Although she appears oblivious to the camera, she was, it seems, in total control of the shoot. “I told my girlfriend, Michelle, how far to stand and take the pictures when I said so,” she tells Ewald. “I love people in action and always look for a while to take a picture of them.”
Other images cast longer, darker shadows. A boy named Gary Crase made a self-portrait in which he poses while holding an ax over the head of a cat his father is holding. Decades later, he described the image to Ewald as “the classic image of an abused child trying to appease his abuser”. As it turned out, throughout his childhood, his father had killed each of the cats in the family, forcing Crase and his little sister to watch. This single image distilled the terror that accompanied Crase’s childhood.
Elsewhere, death seems to preoccupy children and fuels their writing (many refer to male parents with “black lungs” who worked in local coal mines) as well as the most disturbing dream photographs. Allen Shepherd has created an intricately bizarre portrait of his pal, Ricky Dickson, who poses with his eyes closed and arms outstretched, leaning into the forked bark of a tree. It is captioned: “I dreamed that I had killed my best friend.”
Inspired by her recurring nightmares, Denise Dixon photographed her infant twin brothers, one appearing alive, the other hovering like a ghost in a tree above her head. “If I’m dreaming, I’m dreaming about something bad,” she said neutrally. “If I don’t, I don’t dream at all.”
I ask Ewald if she was surprised by the often disturbing surf in dream portraits. “You have to understand that these children lived close to the cycle of life, not only through the daily struggle of the adults around them, but in their day to day life. Death was a constant: they raised animals that were slaughtered and they hunted from an early age. There was also a lot of dark stuff in the background: guns, shootings, too much alcohol. Yet the children enjoyed a rare kind of freedom – they wandered through the mountains every day, building dams, building dens. They knew every square inch of the woods. It was their territory.
In 2008, some 20 years after the publication of Portraits and Dreams, Eward hosted a reunion at Whitesburg High School in Kentucky. As it turned out, most of the children she taught hadn’t seen each other since the late 1970s. In the meantime, many had transcended their impoverished education and, having gone to college, were occupying positions. professional jobs, locally and beyond. They all spoke fondly of the photography classes at Cowan Creek, Campbell’s Branch and Kingdom Come Creek.
“The lessons they learned as image makers, storytellers and masters of their own creativity guided them on their life path,” writes Ewald in his afterword to the new edition of his work. “For me, these students taught me the guiding principles of my life’s work: to frame the world according to the visions of others, as well as my own.”
• Portraits and Dreams by Wendy Eward is published by Mack.