West Virginia gave me the opportunity to make a home, make a claim to some land, choose my tribe," says photographer Nancy Abrams. She tells the story of her life there in the 70s and 80s in her lively new book, The Climb From Salt Lick: A Memoir of Appalachia (West Virginia University Press), in which she paints a vivid picture of what it was like to make her way in an unfamiliar territory during a turbulent time in the nation's history. The release of the book will be accompanied by the first major exhibition of her photographs at Rare Nest Gallery in Avondale.
An aspiring photojournalist at the University of Missouri, Abrams accepted a summer internship at a West Virginia newspaper in the summer of 1974, and it changed her life. Her professor, Bill Kuykendall, had friends who ran a weekly called the Preston County News in Terra Alta, West Virginia-a town of less than 2,000, located about 100 miles south of Pittsburgh-and had recommended Abrams. So in May of that year, she packed up her car and drove east into Appalachia, a place she'd never been to and knew next to nothing about.
A short Jewish girl from suburban Saint Louis prone to wearing hippie peasant dresses, Abrams stood out in her new rural mountain surroundings, but she quickly made friends due to her open personality and happy demeanor. The dramatic landscape attracted her at first sight. "West Virginia is like a woman scorned for her wild appearance and independent ways," she writes in her book. It's not a stretch to think that she saw some of her own personality reflected in this landscape. She writes of her youthful lust and hunger for adventure and experience often and with obvious relish.
After the internship ended, Abrams returned to Missouri to complete her senior year, but she kept thinking about her time in West Virginia. Rather than try for more conventionally exotic National Geographic-type assignments like her photojournalism classmates, she decided to return to Preston County. She eventually assumed the managing editor post at the newspaper, fell in love, got married, had kids, and built a life in that wild, mountainous terrain.
Her photographs from the 70s and 80s superficially resemble the Depression-era WPA pictures of Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans in their depiction of economic want in a remote rural region. But her love for the landscape and obvious affection for her subjects set her shots apart. While Abrams is obviously concerned with capturing the trying conditions of life in coal country, her images don't come off as loaded or didactic in the way that this kind of work can sometimes be. As she tells me via e-mail, "I'm a straight shooter." She means that her photographs aren't enhanced or altered, but I think it also applies to her approach to her subject matter. She seems to take the people she writes about and photographs at their word, and makes every effort to give them the benefit of the doubt.
She takes a direct approach in marrying text and image as well. "I've been a writer for as long as I can remember. As soon as I was able to read, I wanted to write. Photography came much later. But it's not an either/or. 'Words and pictures working together' (to reference [Life photojournalist] Wilson Hicks) was a mantra at the University of Missouri."
Abrams's attachment to the land started early. "From age ten to 17 I lived in Wild Horse Creek Valley on the west side of Babler State Park [in Saint Louis's far-western suburbs]. It was very rural then, with wooded hills and trails on the bluffs of the Missouri River. My mother knew the names of birds and wildflowers, all plentiful in Wild Horse Creek Valley, and that naming made me value them."
Her lifelong affinity for nature made me wonder whether she employs photography primarily to capture beauty. "I do think of my photos as stand-alone art," she says. "Some of my photos are scenes I came across and photographed independent of any assignment. In the biz, these are often called 'enterprise' photos. There was a huge division between art photography and photojournalism when I was at Mizzou. I still feel that tension."
One of the most moving chapters in the memoir tells of a photo opportunity not taken. On a winter morning after a snowstorm, Abrams looked out the window of her cabin and saw shapes scattered in the field outside. They looked like termite mounds, but were made entirely of snow and ice. She went outside and wandered around these natural sculptures. Her husband, Wilford, called them snow rollers. By late in the day the sun had melted them down and, because she hadn't brought her camera along, all she had was her memory of that morning. When she told her coworkers at the newspaper, they told her snow rollers were very rare and thatseeing more than a couple together was unheard of. Abrams had about 30 in her backyard.
Vignettes like this one pepper her book and make for an engaging read. She addresses the class and cultural differences between her and her adopted home with a light touch and an open heart, but the difficulties of making a new life in a rugged, sometimes unforgiving landscape are palpable throughout. She describes how her left-wing politics and middle-class suburban upbringing made her stand out from her working-class, conservative neighbors, but takes pains to stress their common struggles over issues which made them clash, such as Nixon and the Vietnam war, the consolidation of school districts, and the impact of the coal industry on the region's health and economy.
Abrams's book ends with the dissolution of her first marriage in early 1988. She's no longer a journalist, though she still subscribes to four newspapers; in 1990, she took a job as the manager of publications at West Virginia University's health sciences center. "Not quite as fulfilling," she says, "but I was a single mom then, and the money and hours were way better. I think the newspaper business in West Virginia is as bleak as it is elsewhere. It's tragic."
Between The Climb From Salt Lick and the show of her photographs at Rare Nest-gallery director Keith Bringe tells me there will be 34 22-by-36-inch inkjet prints and ten eight-by-ten darkroom prints on display-Chicago has a unique opportunity to meet a writer and photographer who chose to make a life in a part of the country that few outsiders know much about. Abrams's work is a great corrective to ugly caricatures of Appalachia such as J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy. She shows that a newcomer can flourish even in the most unforgiving terrain, and that curiosity can trump narrow-mindedness even in the most remote climes. v